“C’mon Tara, you didn’t even give tonight a fair chance,” George said. His blue eyes were a mixture of pleading and irritation.
I returned the pool stick to the rack on the wall and tried to think of a fair answer before I turned to face him again. I was careful to keep my voice down; the tiny pool hall was pretty crowded for a Tuesday night. The smoky haze that hung permanently in the dimly lit air gave the illusion of privacy around our corner table, but I noticed the couple next to us was already glancing over, trying to look like they weren’t listening.
“George, you were an hour late picking me up because you were working on a press release with your agent.” I stepped closer. “Your agent,” I repeated, shaking my head. “Seriously. You haven’t even graduated yet, much less secured a scholarship. Why do you even need an agent?”
He ran a hand through his hair, evidence of his impatience, though he was careful to keep his tone light, in an attempt to win me to his way of thinking. “I told you already, my dad set it up. And a lot of the pros got one early, especially the big timers. And I’m sorry I was late, but I’m here now and I’m focused on us.” His expression became accusing and he added, “More than I can say for you.”
I rubbed at my temples, trying in vain to massage away the stress headache that had become a trademark of our relationship. “I’m sorry, George, but I’m not the one who messed things up. And I don’t fault you for a change in priorities. Football is important to you. That’s fine, but it’s pushing out everything else, including me. It would make it easier for you to just admit it.”
“You’re wrong, I can do both,” he insisted, shaking his head vigorously. His loose blond hair shook with it.
“You’ve cancelled on me three times in the last week,” I argued. “Not to mention standing me up two nights ago.”
“Tay-” he began, using his nickname for me.
I put my hand up to silence him. I couldn’t do this anymore. “Just stop, George. Stop with all the excuses. It’s just not going to work. You should go. I’ll find my own ride home.”
George stared back at me and I waited for him to argue some more. The tone of regret in my voice had been obvious, but so had the finality of my words. Finally he sighed.
“I’m going to find a way to fix this,” he said quietly.
I didn’t answer. There was nothing to say. Reluctantly, he grabbed his jacket and left. I watched him until the door swung shut behind him and then turned back to our half finished game. I went to the wall and retrieved my stick, as if the breakup I’d just initiated didn’t bother me one bit, and lined up my next shot.
I ignored the curious looks from the nosy couple beside me and focused on sinking the three ball. Only a small twinge of regret ate at me while I finished the game. I hadn’t wanted things to end with George. We’d known each other since sixth grade, and in a lot of ways, he was my best friend. I cared about him a lot. But he’d changed in the past few months. At first, it was so slow I’d barely noticed. We’d go two days without talking – a record for us at the time – which slowly turned into a missed date or a last minute changing in plans. Then, he got an agent, and it was only downhill from there. And while I hated thinking I was throwing away everything we’d ever been to each other, I wasn’t going to be a ‘back-burner’ girlfriend, either. A girl had to have some self respect.
With the game finished, and my pride somewhat still intact over letting a pool hall full of strangers witness my breakup, I pulled out my cell phone and dialed my friend Angela for a ride home.
“Ang, you busy?” I asked, doubting she was.
There was a second of hesitation and then, “Um, Dave and I are having dinner.”
“Dave? That guy from your pre-Calculus class?” I knew my surprise came through, maybe a little too loud and clear, and I felt bad for the way it had come out. “That’s great,” I hastily added. And it was great. Angela had been harboring a crush for this guy for like four months now. And it wasn’t that she couldn’t get a date; she was really pretty with her long dark hair and sexy-librarian-style glasses, but she was mortifyingly shy.
“Thanks. We just ordered so…. Is everything okay? Are you already home from your date?”
“Oh, yeah, I’m fine. Never mind.” I decided against interrupting her. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow and I want details.”
Angela giggled and I pulled the phone away from my head to stare at it like maybe it had just morphed into another life form. Angela never giggled. “Okay, see you tomorrow,” she said.
We disconnected and I dialed my friend Sam. Even if she was out, I wouldn’t feel nearly as bad interrupting her; Sam was always ‘out’. Unfortunately, all I got was voice mail. Darn. I disconnected without leaving a message. No point. She rarely checked it anyway.
The only option left was to call my mom but I quickly dismissed that. No doubt she’d have questions as to why I’d gotten myself stranded in the first place. Which would lead to what happened with George, which was something that, even though I loved her, I didn’t really feel like discussing with my mother. It wasn’t that she wouldn’t listen. The problem was, she’d listen too eagerly. My mother was a classic worrier, and because of that, she hovered. She always wanted to know every single detail of my day, down to what I’d had for lunch and who did I stand next to in gym. And it seemed like the older I got, the worse her worrying became. No way was I calling her.
With all my transportation options exhausted, I sort of regretted letting George leave. Only sort of, though. If he’d driven me, it would have extended the argument or his pleading attempts to change my mind, which in the end would’ve pissed me off. And I was still hoping to maybe salvage our friendship.
I turned my rack of balls in to the bar attendant and walked to the door. I stood there, staring out the foggy glass of the front window, and considered my last resort. There was a bus stop a few blocks away. Not ideal in the middle of February in northern Virginia but it was all I had. I yanked my arms into my coat sleeves and headed for the back hall, past the restrooms, to the back door which would give me a minimal shortcut through the alley that ran between the building and the public parking lot on the other side. The cut-through would shave at least five minutes off my travel time, which was five minutes less I would have to stand in the cold -and I despised the cold.
I slipped out the metal door and pushed it closed behind me, making sure it clicked. A few yards to my right, a streetlamp cast a yellow beam onto the asphalt, but I turned left, towards the bus stop, and into the darkness that was my shortcut. I walked slowly until my eyes adjusted and then picked up the pace. The dark didn’t bother me; I’d made this shortcut dozens of times. The parking lot coming up on the right was free parking and I used it more than the meters out front whenever I came to this part of downtown. I passed the lot, wishing I’d driven separately so that my hand-me-down Honda – and its wonderful heater – would have been waiting for me, instead of the drafty city bus. Matter of fact, I wished I hadn’t come at all. George’s tardiness would’ve been the perfect excuse to change my mind. Especially when we both knew our relationship had already hung in the balance, precariously leaning towards ‘breakup’ before we’d even made it out tonight.
It was quiet and my boots thudded loudly against the asphalt. I hurried to reach the bus shelter, hating the bite of the cold air, and glad that the surrounding buildings were high enough to keep the wind to a minimum. I drew my coat tighter around my neck against the chill that seeped its way into my skin, giving me goose bumps from head to toe.
I hated goose bumps because it meant the hair on your legs grew back twice as fast. And I was always getting them, because of some weird cold chill that would come over me. Even in the summer, when everyone was wearing shorts and bathing suits and having shaved legs was sort of a priority. When I was younger, I complained to my mom about it a few times and she would always say that Godfreys were thin blooded and easily chilled. Then she would stare at me, with an odd expression, and disappear; either into the backyard, to weed the flowerbeds, or the pantry, to reorganize the canned goods.
The tingling of the goose bumps subsided and my thoughts wandered back to George, and all the history between us. Like in sixth grade, when he’d tried growing his hair out, saying he’d wanted a surfer look, but really, I’d had no choice but to tell him he just looked… grungy. Back when grungy was NOT “in”. And seventh grade, when he’d shaved it all off again, after we’d watched a video on career day, about the army. He’d talked about joining for months afterward; talking about how cool it would be to shoot guns for a living. Then, in eighth grade, we’d each had our first kiss, though not with each other.
George had fallen hard for the girl until her family had moved away. She was military and her dad had gotten re-stationed. He’d changed his mind about enlisting after that. Ninth grade, he’d gone out for football, and made Junior Varsity MVP. He changed a lot that year, gaining a self confidence that wasn’t there before. By the end of sophomore year I’d started to notice him as more than just a friend. Last summer had been awkward between us. I’d spent the entire time stressing over the uncharted territory of having feelings for him, and whether he might have feelings for me.
I’d never even questioned being with George. It felt natural and right. He was my best friend for so long that the only thing dating had really changed was adding kissing into the mix. Not bad, as perks go.
Up ahead, a movement caught my eye, pulling me out of my thoughts. I stopped short and felt my pulse jump at the unexpected company. I didn’t usually see anyone else in this part of the cut-through but just past the next dumpster, a girl with long blond hair and pointy-heeled boots stood in the center of the alley, shaking uncontrollably. I took a step towards her, wanting to help in some way, and then stopped again, at the look on her face. She was glaring at me with a look of hatred so raw that it sent a shiver down my back.
“Um, are you okay?” I called out, still trying to understand why she was basically convulsing. Was she having a seizure? But she was managing to stay on her feet. Her gloved hands were balled into fists at her sides, and she was breathing heavy now. I tried again. “Do you need some help?” Something about the way she looked at me was making my skin tingle and crawl. I shivered again.
“Help,” she repeated, through clenched teeth. “Right.” Her words dripped with sarcasm and unconcealed malice.
Then, before I could think of something to say to that, her shaking reached its crescendo and then she … exploded. There was really no other word for it. With a harsh ripping sound her clothes disappeared, scattering into the air in tiny pieces. In the same second, her body seemed to waver and then morph, leaving in its place the largest wolf I’d ever seen. I felt my jaw drop. Was I crazy or had that girl just turned into a giant dog?
I had a split second to stare at her and then she charged. The brown fur became nothing more than a blur as she rushed forward, teeth bared and claws extended. In that moment, I was completely sure that I was going to die. I didn’t even have time to be afraid; it would all be over too quickly.
Then, somehow, though my conscious brain had nothing to do with it, my body reacted. Just before impact, I twisted aside, dodging her. Using my body’s momentum, I brought my hand around and swung. I hadn’t even realized I’d made a fist, but my knuckles connected and I heard the crack of bone as my hand slammed into the wolf’s cheek. The hit drove it - her? - back a few paces but then it straightened and seemed to right itself. Its yellow eyes locked onto mine and it came again. I shed my jacket, and let it fall next to me on the asphalt; some hidden part of me knew I needed better use of my limbs.
Three more times I managed to dodge the wolf as it lunged. On the fourth, its claws caught on my shirt and raked down my abdomen on either side, driving me back. I stumbled and fell. My back slammed onto the pavement with a hard thud. Again, I accepted my inevitable death. I watched as she continued to come at me, slower and more confident now that I was on the ground. All I could see were razor canines aimed straight for my throat. I cringed and turned away, unable to look into those bright yellow eyes, knowing what was coming. When I turned, a glint of slivered moonlight caught a piece of piping nearby; probably meant for the dumpster but somehow landing here.
Again, subconscious reasoning took over and I felt myself reaching for it, my hand closing around the cold steel. With a grunt, I swung out.
I hadn’t expected to actually land the blow or for the crack to be quite so loud. I felt the vibrations from it all the way up my arm but I managed to hold onto the pipe until I felt the wolf’s weight go slack and it crumpled in a heap, half on top of me. I pushed it aside, which wasn’t easy, and scrambled to my feet. After that, I just stood there, staring down at the giant mass of fur and wondering how in the world no one else had noticed what just happened.
As I stared, the wolf’s form began to shake and then shimmer around the edges, going hazy, and then finally – it was the girl again. Her long hair covered her face in stringy waves, matting to her head on the side where the pipe had made contact. Blood seeped slow and steady from the wound to the pavement. Her body was naked and curled together, almost fetal, except for her knee wedged at an unnatural angle. I could see that her eyes were open and staring vacantly but I didn’t linger on that. I couldn’t. My eyes were wide and disbelieving as I gaped at what lay in front of me. I struggled to accept what I was seeing. No way. It was impossible. People couldn’t be … wolves. That was a myth. A way for Hollywood to cash in.
But there was no mistaking it. The girl lying in a heap in front of me was definitely the same girl as before. And she smelled, distinctly, of animal.
I kept hoping she’d move, or at least groan, from the pain of the head trauma. Ignoring the feminine details of her bare body, I stared hard at her shoulders and chest, looking for any sign that might indicate breathing. I didn’t see any. And I knew, deep down, that I wouldn’t.
My hands began to shake. Maybe from the cold, but I was too numb to feel the temperature against my skin. I took a step back and stumbled.
Hands closed around me, keeping me upright. I jolted and tried to jerk away from the unexpected contact. A strangled scream escaped my lips as the hands whirled me around to face my attacker.
“Whoa. It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you,” he said.
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t really remember how to speak at the moment and if I could, it would’ve been a scream anyway. My breath came in uneven gasps and he waited until I got myself under control.
There was concern in his eyes but that didn’t go very far with me. I noticed vaguely that his eyes were the same exact color as his hair, a sort of bronzed brown. The color was fascinating; unlike anything I’d ever seen, and they seemed to hold some dark edge that hinted at danger, no matter how gentle they got. The rest of him wasn’t bad either. His face matched his eyes, rugged and hard edges from his cheekbones to his jaw. When he’d spun me around, I’d grabbed out to steady myself and even now my hands still rested on his shoulders, where I’d first gripped. Underneath my fingers, and the leather of his jacket, was solid muscle.
The fact that I was actually checking him out – just moments after killing a girl - was my first clue I was in shock.
“Are you alright?” His gaze swept over me without waiting for an answer, critically inspecting the rest of my body, not unlike the once over I’d just given him.
It dawned on me that he was trying to help, and thankfully, that dialed back my panic enough for me to find my voice. Then again, now that my brain was convinced the danger had truly passed, some switch seemed to release, giving me permission to officially freak out. “I think so.” I answered automatically, without really knowing if I was or not. I felt numb and strange inside my own skin.
“Did she bite you?”
His voice seemed to come from inside a tunnel. I blinked to try and clear the fog. “What?”
“Did she bite you?” His voice was firmer now and his hands pressed down on my shoulders, trying to keep my attention.
“No,” I answered, finding it easier to concentrate if I stared into his unwavering, gold flecked eyes.
“Good.” A look of genuine relief passed over his features before his eyebrows arched downward with new worry. “Are you alone out here? Do you have a way home?”
“I-” I struggled to remember and kept my eyes fixed on his while I waited for the answer to come. “I was taking the bus. My ride left earlier.”
His brows curved deeper at that and he shot an almost imperceptible glance at the exposed body lying behind me. His hands finally dropped away from my shoulders. “Well, I’m not going to just leave you here,” he mumbled, almost to himself. He seemed to debate something a moment longer and then pulled a phone out of his pocket, hitting a single button.
“Jack, its Wes. We’ve got a situation. Liliana’s dead.” There was a pause as he listened to whoever was on the other end. Then, “No, it wasn’t like that. It was a girl but it’s … confusing. I can’t get a read on her at all.” Another pause and then, “I’m in the alley behind Fleet Street. She’ll be in the dumpster until you get here… No, not the girl, Liliana.”
I blanched at that and felt new panic rising as he finished his call. Whatever else he said didn’t make it past the warning bell ringing in my ears. He must’ve seen the look on my face, though, because he quickly put his hands, palms up, in front of him, and spoke soothingly. “I meant her- the girl you fought with. I didn’t mean you.”
I nodded, inhaling deeply to wash away the adrenaline that was coursing through me. I really needed to get a handle on myself. This was ridiculous. I probably looked and sounded like a moron, and the fact that I was shivering didn’t help, either. It reminded me of the way the girl had been shaking, right before she-
“What’s your name?”
His voice snapped me out of it, cutting off the replay my brain had been about to give me. “Tara,” I answered in a voice that sounded much weaker than I’d intended. “Tara Godfrey,” I repeated, louder.
“Tara, I’m Wes and I’m going to help you, if you’ll let me. Can I give you a ride home?”
“A ride? Seriously?” I gaped at him. “I just killed that girl. We need to call the police, a coroner, somebody.”
“I made a call and someone is on his way to take care of it.”
I shook my head. “Yeah, that didn’t exactly sound official. And you called her by name. Liliana. You know her? What’s going on?”
“Look, obviously you saw what’s going on,” he said, a little impatient. “That girl wasn’t human. And I don’t think either of us wants to answer the questions that would come with admitting that to the police. Not that they would believe you in the first place. So, I’m taking care of it - discreetly. And unless you want to end up in a padded room, you’ll do the same.”
Okay, he had a point – especially about the padded room part. I mean, I saw it with my own eyes and I was still having a hard time with it all. I could guess how it would sound, trying to explain it to police or doctors.
It didn’t feel good, lying about something like this, though. I’d just killed a girl – or dog – or whatever. But, maybe I’d be willing to deal with it – if I had some answers about what the hell was actually happening.
“Fine, I’ll do it your way. But you have to give me something in return,” I said.
He eyed me, wary. “What?”
“Answers. An explanation. I mean, seriously, this kind of stuff isn’t real. Or isn’t supposed to be, but here it is. And you seem to know a lot about it, so what’s the deal?”
He sighed in response but didn’t argue my demand. Maybe he’d been expecting it. “I’ll tell you in the car. For now, we’ve gotta’ get out of this alley before someone sees us. Come on.”
“No way. We talk here and then I’ll take the bus, like I planned.”
He glanced down at my shirt with a wry half smile. “I don’t think that would be wise. You would draw a considerable amount of …attention.”
I glanced down, too, and noticed for the first time that my shirt was all but destroyed. It hung off me like a rag with long slash marks running up both sides of my abdomen, along my ribs. Underneath the fabric, I could see shallow slash marks on my skin. The wounds were raised and red and looked like I’d faced off with a cat. Oh wait. Dog.
I reached down to zip my jacket and remembered I wasn’t wearing it.
“Here,” he said, holding it out to me.
“Thanks.” I took it and put it on, fully preparing to just zip it up to cover the damage. No such luck. The zipper wasn’t just broken; it was completely gone, as was a huge chunk of my sleeve, near my wrist. Apparently the she-wolf had gotten closer than I thought with her teeth.
“Crap.” I sighed, long and loud, letting him know exactly how I felt about this idea. “Fine, you can take me home.”
He turned and started walking, slowing his pace to match mine and blocking my view of the girl as we passed by on our way back down the alley. We ended up in the public parking lot. The lot was lit with yellow-bulbed street lights at each corner and in the middle. They were like glaring spotlights compared to the pitch darkness of the alley. My senses kicked into overdrive. Something in me snapped. Maybe I was finally coming out of the shock I’d been in – or maybe I’d hit a new level of “freaking out”. Either way, at the sight of the lights, I froze.
I tried putting one foot in front of the other but it just wouldn’t happen. I was shaking badly now, enough to make my teeth chatter, though I felt weirdly numb and unaffected by the cold. I didn’t even have stupid goose bumps anymore. My heart began pounding, echoing loudly in my ears. Behind that was a rushing sound that made me lightheaded.
“Tara?” I heard Wes calling my name. I hadn’t even noticed him standing there.
“Tara, we need to go. My car’s over here.” His hand closed over my arm and sent me over the edge.
I jumped away, startling both of us, and stared back at him in panicked fear. This was all just too much.
“Tara.” Wes’ voice was low and soothing. “I know you’re scared but I’m not going to hurt you. I’m trying to help you. Let me help you.” He took a step closer.
Some closed off part of my brain was yelling at me, telling me to shake it off and stop acting like a complete lunatic. But I couldn’t seem to calm down.
“I can see that you’re in shock,” Wes said, still edging closer while I fought the urge to bolt. “I can’t afford to take you somewhere to be treated so I’m going to do something for you. I’m going to help you forget – just for now. It should wear off in the morning, and if not, I’ll help you remember. But for right now, it’s better if you just forget for awhile. Okay?”
I didn’t answer. Partly because I was scared if I tried to talk, I’d scream like a banshee, and partly because not a single thing he’d just said made any kind of sense.
Apparently he took my silence as agreement because he nodded and said, “Good, now just relax.” He was using that same patronizing tone, the one meant to be soothing. But he was looking at me like I was some wild animal, ready to bolt. And he kept his distance. “Now just keep your eyes on mine. That’s right. Just focus on me…” He murmured reassurances and somewhere around the third or fourth one, I felt myself being drawn in. I looked down but my body hadn’t moved. It was my mind, something inside me, that seemed to pull closer and closer until I felt like I could reach up and touch him. “Right here, Tara. Just look here, in my eyes. It’s going to be okay.” I looked up and our eyes locked. His held a piercing stare that seemed to stab all the way through me and out the other side.
Then, it all disappeared.
* * *
Now that you just have to know what happens next, you can go pick up your copy at Smashwords or Amazon. As I write this, it's not yet available for purchase on Amazon, but the page is there, so it should be anytime that it goes fully live and allows you to click to purchase. Let me know when you see it! I'm off to continue working on getting it ready for paperback, and I'll be popping in and out of FB and Twitter all day, just to scream and do the booty dance with friends. See you there!