“Hold still," I said, dipping the washcloth into the bathwater. Kimberly shut her eyes tight as I reached up and began to dab at her face.
“It hurts a little," she said when I lowered the cloth again, rinsing it off as best I could in the tub. It was already stained black and brown, but towels were yet another thing the Swag Pag neglected to see as worth spending their hard stolen money for.
“I'm sorry," I told her, wiping her cheeks again as gently as I could. “You might be having an allergic reaction to it."
After I'd finally gotten up off the floor in D.K.'s room, I had found Kimberly sitting in the corner of our trashy room, crying. It had taken me over an hour to calm her down, but after that she'd agreed to take a bath surprisingly easily. Of course, I wouldn't let her set foot in the tub until after I'd scoured it clean. It obviously hadn't been used in years…
“Does it hurt?" she asked suddenly, opening her eyes when I took the cloth away from her face.
“I'm sure it does," I answered. “Don't worry, if you get a rash I'll find you something to put on it."
“No," she shook her head, and pointed at my cheek. “That."
I self-consciously put my hand over the bruise to hide it, and looked away. It did hurt. D.K. hit me harder this time than he had before. It hurt to talk, or even open my mouth. Chewing my food was going to be a chore, too. Still, at least it had been me and not Kimberly.
“You shouldn't let him hit you," she said.
I looked up and locked eyes with her. That was probably the nicest thing she'd ever said to me. And yet, I couldn't take her advice.
“I can't stop him," I whispered, hardly able to believe I was having this discussion with a five year old. Wasn't this supposed to be the other way around?
“Why not?" Kimberly asked, her eyes wide with innocence and curiosity.
I knew the answer right away, but the words stuck in my throat. “Because he's stronger than me," I managed to say at last.
To my surprise, Kimberly just shrugged. “You're stronger than me," she said, as if that settled the matter.
I don't know what she meant by that statement, but it struck something in me. I was stronger than her, which meant it was my job to protect her. I'd known this the whole time, but it had never occurred to me until now just what that meant. Being strong didn't just mean taking her punches for her. If D.K. had tried to hit her, I wouldn't have been able to stop him. I paused, my hand in midair, and squeezed the rag so hard that all the water came out. A new, fiery conviction came over me. I would protect Kimberly with my life, and the only way I could do that was to be stronger than the ones who wanted to hurt her.
“What?" she asked, bringing me back to the present. I realized I was still sitting there, the washcloth clenched in my fist, with a scary expression on my face.
“Nothing, honey," I said and went back to cleaning her face off.
Fifteen minutes later, I finished drying her off, and she put on her clothes and headed back to our room. They were the same clothes she'd received at Majestic, and they were without a doubt filthy at this point. The pack had nothing for her to change into, though, so she had to make do with those. She hadn't complained about it, probably seeing it as a minor annoyance amongst all the other scary things happening around her, and for that I was thankful. At least the makeup hadn't given her a rash. I drained the tub and dried off my own hands, but when I turned to leave the bathroom I found Tyler standing in the doorway.
I had to bite back a gasp. Tyler was so huge that his head nearly touched the top of the doorframe, but he still moved so quietly that I hadn't heard him.
“Are you all right?" he asked, glancing down at my cheek.
“It hurts," I admitted, “but I'll be all right."
“It should be gone by tomorrow morning," he said.
I nodded absently, and subconsciously reached up and toyed with my hair a little. I could hear D.K. and Kaylie in the other end of the house, and so I felt safe to ask the question that had been bugging me all this time.
“Tyler, what are the G-Nomes?"
Tyler glanced down the hallway, like he was afraid his alpha wouldn't like it if he answered that question, and then stepped into the bathroom with me. I tried not to think about how awkward that was, but was relieved when he didn't shut the door.
“They're gremlins," he said, almost whispering. “And they're one of the rival gangs in town."
“A gang of gremlins?" I asked, incredulously. I had heard and seen some weird things over the past few days, but for some reason this took the cake. “I thought they were supposed to be small or something."
Tyler shrugged. “Most people do."
It made sense, I thought. They had been making computers blow up just by touching them that morning. That sounded pretty gremlin-y to me.
“And D.K.'s worried about them taking the pack's territory?" I said, remembering what he had been screaming about earlier.
“It wouldn't be the first time," Tyler replied. “This part of town belonged to them before we came. They've been trying to take it back ever since."
“Wait," I said, holding up my hand, “you guys didn't always live here? Where did you come from?"
For a second, Tyler stopped talking. But then he shook his head and said, “That's not important. D.K. is going to attack the G-Nomes tomorrow morning."
Instantly, all curiosity towards Tyler's past was forgotten.
“Attack them?" I echoed in a high, shrill voice. “Like, fight them?"
“He's tired of them challenging him," Tyler said, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “It's a wolf thing."
“Are you going with him?" I asked.
He nodded, “So is Kaylie."
I swallowed hard, afraid of hearing the answer to my next question. “And what about me and Kimberly?"
To my relief, Tyler said, “I don't know. He'll probably leave Kimberly here. She's too little to be any good in a fight. She'd just get in a way. “You," he paused awkwardly, “he'll probably want you to go."
My knees suddenly felt weak, and I had to grab the towel rod to keep from falling. I sat down on the toilet and looked up at him.
“Will it be dangerous?" I asked, feeling stupid for even having to ask.
“Yeah. Gremlins can hurt you pretty bad if they get their hands on you."
“Oh," I said wrapping my arms around my stomach, reminded of the smoking, fizzing computers back at Chuck's store. Could they do that to a human body too? The mental image made me feel sick.
“I can't fight anybody," I whispered, looking down at the putrid brown rug beneath the toilet. “I'm too weak."
“You're not weak," Tyler said, and I looked back up at him.
“I fought a werewolf once, and I lost," I said, cringing at the memory.
“That doesn't mean you're weak," Tyler argued. “It just meant the other wolf was stronger."
“It's the same thing, isn't it?"
“No. Just because somebody's stronger than you doesn't mean you're weak. It just means you aren't as strong as they are."
For some reason, Tyler's reassurances actually made me feel better. I still wasn't looking forward to picking a fight with the metalhead punks I'd met earlier, but at least Tyler didn't think I was completely useless.
“D.K. wants to leave first thing in the morning," he said, turning to walk out of the bathroom. “You should get something to eat, and then go to sleep. You'll need as much energy as you can get tomorrow."
NEXT TIME: Ooh, a fight scene?! With the G-Nomes?! This might actually be pretty cool. Assuming, of course, that Amber doesn't get killed or something.