Shiver, page 5part #1 of The Wolves of Mercy Falls Series
She snatched them out of my hands and flicked the wolf photo back at me with such force that it bounced off my chest and onto the floor. “Yeah. Sometimes, Grace, I don’t know why I even…”
Olivia didn’t end the sentence, just shook her head. I didn’t get it. Did she want me to pretend to like the other photos better than the one of my wolf?
“Hello! Anyone home?” It was John, Olivia’s older brother, sparing me from the consequences of whatever I’d done to irritate Olivia. He grinned at me from the front hall, shutting the door behind him. “Hey, good-looking. ”
Olivia looked up from her seat at the kitchen table with a frosty expression. “I hope you’re talking about me. ”
“Of course,” John said, looking at me. He was handsome in a very conventional way: tall, dark-haired like his sister, but with a face quick to smile and befriend. “It would be in very bad taste to hit on your sister’s best friend. So. It’s four o’clock. How time flies when you’re”—he paused, looking at Olivia leaning over the table with a pile of photographs and me across from her with another stack—“doing nothing. Can’t you do nothing by yourselves?”
Olivia silently straightened up her pile of photos while I explained, “We’re introverts. We like doing nothing together. All talk, no action. ”
“Sounds fascinating. Olive, we’ve got to leave now if you want to make it to your lesson. ” He punched my arm lightly. “Hey, why don’t you come with us, Grace? Are your parents home?”
I snorted. “Are you kidding? I’m raising myself. I should get a head of household bonus on my taxes. ” John laughed, probably more than my comment warranted, and Olivia shot me a look imbued with enough venom to kill small animals. I shut up.
“Come on, Olive,” said John, seemingly oblivious to the daggers flying from his sister’s eyes. “You pay for the lesson whether you get there or not. You coming, Grace?”
I looked out the window, and for the first time in months, I imagined disappearing into the trees and running until I found my wolf in a summer wood. I shook my head. “Not this time. Rain check?”
John flashed a lopsided smile at me. “Yep. Come on, Olive. Bye, good-looking. You know who to call if you’re looking for some action with your talk. ”
Olivia swung her backpack at him; it made a solid thuk as it hit his body. But it was me who got the dark look again, like I’d done anything to encourage John’s flirting. “Go. Just go. Bye, Grace. ”
I showed them to the door and then returned aimlessly to the kitchen. A pleasantly neutral voice followed me, an announcer on NPR describing the classical piece I’d just heard and introducing another one; Dad had left the radio on in his study next to the kitchen. Somehow, the sounds of my parents’ presence only highlighted their absence. Knowing that dinner would be canned beans unless I made it, I rummaged in the fridge and put a pot of leftover soup on the stove to simmer until my parents got home.
I stood in the kitchen, illuminated by the slanting cool afternoon light through the deck door, feeling sorry for myself, more because of Olivia’s photo than because of the empty house. I hadn’t seen my wolf in person since that day I’d touched him, nearly a week ago, and even though I knew it shouldn’t, his absence still stabbed. It was stupid, the way I needed his phantom at the edge of the yard to feel complete. Stupid but completely incurable.
I went to the back door and opened it, wanting to smell the woods. I padded out onto the deck in my sock feet and leaned against the railing.
If I hadn’t gone outside, I don’t know if I would have heard the scream.
CHAPTER NINE • GRACE
From the distance beyond the trees, the scream came again. For a second I thought it was a howl, and then the cry resolved itself into words: “Help! Help!”
I swore the voice sounded like Jack Culpeper’s.
But that was impossible. I was just imagining it, remembering it from the cafeteria, where it had always seemed to carry over the others around him as he catcalled girls in the hallway.
Still, I followed the sound of the voice, moving impulsively across the yard and through the trees. The ground was damp and prickly through my sock feet; I was clumsier without my shoes. The crashing of my own steps through fallen leaves and tangled brush drowned out any other sounds. I hesitated, listening. The voice was gone, replaced by just a whimper, distinctly animal-sounding, and then by silence.
The relative safety of the backyard was far behind me now. I stood for a long moment, listening for any indication of where the first scream had come from. I knew I hadn’t imagined it.
But there was nothing but silence. And in that silence, the smell of the woods seeped under my skin and reminded me of him. Crushed pine needles and wet earth and wood smoke.
I didn’t care how idiotic it was. I’d come into the woods this far. Going a little farther to try to see my wolf again wouldn’t hurt anybody. I retreated to the house, just long enough to get my shoes, and headed back out into the cool autumn day. There was a bite behind the breeze that promised winter, but the sun shone bright, and under the shelter of the trees, the air was warm with the memory of hot days not so long ago.
All around me, leaves were dying gorgeously in red and orange; crows cawed to each other overhead in a vibrant, ugly soundtrack. I hadn’t been this far into these woods since I was eleven, when I’d awoken surrounded by wolves, but strangely, I didn’t feel afraid.
I stepped carefully, avoiding the little streams that snaked through the underbrush. This should have been unfamiliar territory, but I felt confident, assured. Silently guided, as though by a weird sixth sense, I followed the same worn paths that the wolves used over and over again.
Of course I knew it wasn’t really a sixth sense. It was just me, acknowledging that there was more to my senses than I normally let on. I gave in to them and they became efficient, sharpened. As it reached me, the breeze seemed to carry the information of a stack of maps, telling me which animals had traveled where and how long ago. My ears picked up faint sounds that before had gone unnoticed: the rustling of a twig as a bird built a nest overhead, the soft step of a deer dozens of feet away.
I felt like I was home.
The woods rang with an unfamiliar cry, out of place in this world. I hesitated, listening. The whimper came again, louder than before.
Rounding a pine tree, I came upon the source: three wolves. It was the white wolf and the black pack leader; the sight of the she-wolf made my stomach twist with nerves. The two of them had pounced on a third wolf, a scraggly young male with an almost-blue tint to his gray coat and an ugly, healing wound on his shoulder. The other two wolves were pinning him to the leafy ground in a show of dominance; they all froze when they saw me. The pinned male twisted his head to stare at me, eyes entreating. My heart thudded in my chest. I knew those eyes. I remembered them from school; I remembered them from the local news.
“Jack?” I whispered.
The pinned wolf whistled pitifully through his nostrils. I just kept staring at those eyes. Hazel. Did wolves have hazel eyes? Maybe they did. Why did they look so wrong? As I stared at them, that one word just kept singing through my head: human, human, human.
With a snarl in my direction, the she-wolf let him up. She snapped at his side, pushing him away from me. Her eyes were on me the entire time, daring me to stop her, and something in me told me that maybe I should have tried. But by the time my thoughts stopped spinning and I remembered the pocketknife in my jeans, the three wolves were already dark smudges in the distant trees.
Without the wolf’s eyes before me, I had to wonder if I’d imagined the likeness to Jack’s. After all, it had been two weeks since I’d seen Jack in person, and I’d never really paid close attention to him. I could have been misremembering his eyes. What was I thinking, anyway? That he’d turned into a wolf?
I let out a deep breath. Actually, that was what I was thinking. I didn’t think I had forgott
There was a knot in my stomach. Nerves. Anticipation. I didn’t think Jack was the only secret these woods held.
That night I lay in bed and stared at the window, my blinds pulled up so I could see the night sky. One thousand brilliant stars punched holes in my consciousness, pricking me with longing. I could stare at the stars for hours, their infinite number and depth pulling me into a part of myself that I ignored during the day.
Outside, deep in the woods, I heard a long, keening wail, and then another, as the wolves began to howl. More voices pitched in, some low and mournful, others high and short, an eerie and beautiful chorus. I knew my wolf’s howl; his rich tone sang out above the others as if begging me to hear it.
My heart ached inside me, torn between wanting them to stop and wishing they would go on forever. I imagined myself there among them in the golden wood, watching them tilt their heads back and howl underneath a sky of endless stars. I blinked a tear away, feeling foolish and miserable, but I didn’t go to sleep until every wolf had fallen silent.
CHAPTER TEN • GRACE
“Do you think we need to take the book home—you know, Exploring Guts, or whatever it’s called?” I asked Olivia. “For the reading? Or can I leave it here?”
She shoved her locker shut, her arms full of books. She was wearing reading glasses, complete with a chain on the ear pieces so that she could hang them around her neck. On Olivia, the look kind of worked, in a sort of charming librarian way. “It’s a lot of reading. I’m bringing it. ”
I reached back into my locker for the textbook. Behind us, the hall hummed with noise as students packed up and headed home. All day long, I’d tried to work up the nerve to tell Olivia about the wolves. Normally I wouldn’t have had to think about it, but after our almost-fight the day before, the moment hadn’t seemed to come up. And now the day was over. I took a deep breath. “I saw the wolves yesterday. ”
Olivia paged idly through the book on top of her stack, not realizing how momentous my confession was. “Which ones?”
“The nasty she-wolf, the black one, and a new one. ” I debated again whether or not to tell her. She was way more interested in the wolves than Rachel was, and I didn’t know who else to talk to. Even inside my head, the words sounded crazy. But since the evening before, the secret had surrounded me, tight around my chest and throat. I let the words spill out, my voice low. “Olivia, this is going to sound stupid. The new wolf—I think something happened when the wolves attacked Jack. ”
She just stared at me.
“Jack Culpeper,” I said.
“I know who you meant. ” Olivia frowned at the front of her locker.
Her knotted eyebrows were making me regret starting the conversation. I sighed. “I thought I saw him in the woods. Jack. As a…” I hesitated.
“Wolf?” Olivia clicked her heels together—I’d never known anyone to actually do that, outside of The Wizard of Oz—and spun on them to face me with a raised eyebrow. “You’re crazy. ” I could barely hear her over the students pressed all around us in the hall. “I mean, it’s a nice fantasy, and I can see why you’d want to believe it—but you’re crazy. Sorry. ”