I sat there in the front yard, heedless of the snow melting and soaking into my jeans, as a hurricane of emotions stormed inside my chest. I was scared for Kimberly, scared for my mom, scared even for myself, but also angry at Majestic, Edgar, Victor, Hendricks... and at myself for not being strong enough to handle things. I reflected on what I had been thinking just before Victor showed up, about how strong I had become, and almost laughed.
Who was I kidding? Saying I'm stronger now than I used to be is like saying dry toilet paper is stronger than wet toilet paper, and...
And now I'm comparing myself to toilet paper. How's that for self-esteem?
It felt like a pretty accurate comparison at the moment, though, I thought as I picked myself up from the snow and finally made my way to the door. Amber Pace, Silverblood werewolf, as strong as toilet paper and just about as useful. I paused with my hand an inch from the doorknob, that last thought bringing an unexpectedly strong wave of emotions along with it. For a few seconds, my lip quivered, but then I took a deep breath, composed myself, and went inside.
"Is that you, Amber?" Mom called from the kitchen.
"Yeah," I called back.
"Why are you so late? Was your bus running behind?"
I was about to tell her I'd decided to walk home, but changed my mind at the last second. Knowing that I was running around town with a demon hot on my heels would probably have been enough to give her a stroke.
"Yeah," I said instead, "it blew a tire out on the highway, and we had to wait for a sub to get there."
"Well, as long as you're all right," she replied, and I caught the scent of chili and baked potatoes wafting from the kitchen, making my stomach growl. I don't care how much trouble I'm in, my mom is still the best cook in the world and chowing down on her hand cooked dinners would always be top priority. The fact that she had even thrown out all her recipes with chocolate in them meant more to me than anyone who isn't a werewolf could ever understand. "Supper will be ready in about half an hour."
"Okay," I said, starting down the hallway.
"We really ought to get you a cell phone," she went on. "Kimberly was standing at the bus stop for almost fifteen minutes waiting for you before I happened to drive past and see her."
I stopped in my tracks. Kimberly! How could I have forgotten about her? We'd given her instructions not to try walking home from the bus stop without me. That wasn't usually a problem since my bus normally got back first, but if I decided not to take the bus at all...
I beat my fist against my forehead. Have I mentioned how I'm a huge freaking idiot? Because I'm a huge freaking idiot.
"Yeah, sorry about that," I said, the room spinning around me. Either I'd succeeded in hammering some sense into my thick skull, or I'd given myself a concussion. Judging by my aforementioned idiocy, it was probably the second one.
"It's not your fault," Mom comforted me. "You can't help it if those rickety old busses blow a tire now and then. She should be in her room now, if you want to see her."
I looked, and saw light coming out from under Kimberly's bedroom door. This late in the year, I barely had time to get home from school before the sun went down, and even though she'd never said it, I had a feeling Kimberly was scared of the dark. I didn't blame her, with things like me running around at night, eating little girls...
I headed for my room, but paused just outside the door. My teachers were still expecting a snow day to strike any day now, and so had taken it upon themselves to adequately prepare us for what would surely be a long, boring day with nothing to do. That meant homework, piles of it. Math, history, biology, chemistry, English, it would take hours to finish it all, and if the weather forecast failed us again I doubted anyone would have it all finished. And yet, I didn't feel like starting it. Throwing my backpack onto my bed, I turned around and made for Kimberly's room.
My feet turned to heavy concrete blocks as I raised my hand to knock. This was just going to make me miserable again, and I knew it. She didn't want to talk to me. What's worse, this time I would have to keep my mouth in check or risk spilling the beans about Stark's plan to let her see her parents again. An order from the alpha was all well and good, but it wouldn't matter if my tongue were to accidentally slip. But I had to do it. I had to at least try to make things right between us.
I knocked softly on her door.
"Who is it?" she asked from the other side.
"It's me," I answered, trying to sound cheerful.
Kimberly was quiet for a few seconds. "What do you want?" she finally snapped.
"A little respect from you, you ungrateful little..." my wolf side wanted to snap back, but I pushed that down.
"Can I come in?"
I heard her grumbling, but then she said, "Yeah, I guess."
Swallowing my nervousness, I turned the knob and stepped inside. The room Stark had given her was a little smaller than mine, but walls had been covered with My Little Pony and Dora the Explorer posters. What little I could see of the actual walls had been painted a shade of pink that made my eyes water just looking at it. Kimberly was sitting on the floor in front of her equally-pink bed, and I saw a small pile of dolls on the floor in front of her.
"Hey," I said, putting on my biggest fake smile. "How was school today?"
"It was stupid," she answered. Dang, how did a five year old girl manage to look so sullen? "They keep calling me 'Andrea'."
I cocked my head. "Why are they calling you..." I paused. "Oh, right."
We couldn't really enroll a dead girl in kindergarten, could we?
"I hate it," she grumped, and crossed her arms stubbornly, leaning back against her bed and looking angrily at her dolls.
"Yeah, I don't blame you," I said, scratching my head awkwardly. "Trust me, it doesn't get better."
I saw Kimberly's grip on her forearms tighten, turning the skin white, and I bit my tongue. Brilliant, Amber. Don't make her feel better, just tell her things are going to get worse!
I looked down at the dolls in front of her, and an idea came to me.
"You want to play Barbie?" I asked, sitting down across from her.
I hesitated, but then reached out and picked up the Ken doll. "Come on, you like Barbie! I'll be Ken, okay?"
She didn't reply, just glared at the doll like it had betrayed her.
"I'm gonna go buy a hippo, Barbie," I said in a low voice, waggling the doll. "And there's nothing you can do to stop me!"
"Stop it," Kimberly whispered.
"It's gonna be the bestest pet ever, you'll see!"
"Stop it!" she yelled, and this time she kicked out at me, knocking the doll right out of my hand. I jerked my hand back.
"You're so stupid!" she yelled, getting up and storming over to where Ken lay.
I stood up too. "What's wrong?"
"I don't want to play with you, okay?" she raged, picking the doll up. "I don't want anything to do with you. You're stupid, and you ruin everything. Just leave me alone!"
With that, she turned and threw Ken out the window.
I don't know what it was about that particular display of spite that finally pushed me over the edge, but my temper snapped.
"What's the matter with you?" I yelled back, taking a threatening step towards her. "Why are you doing this?"
"No, shut up!" I snapped, cutting her off. "You don't get to talk right now. Everything I've been doing has been to make you happy. That's all I wanted Kimberly, for you to be happy!"
Her face was turning red now, but I didn't care. I knew yelling at her would have the exact opposite effect I wanted, but I didn't care about that either. There was too much going on in my life between Hendricks and Majestic, and I didn't need her bratty little attitude on top of it.
"But you're so mean to me that I don't want to do it anymore," I went on. "You're ungrateful, you say horrible things to me, and you don't care about a single freaking thing I do for you! What's your problem, Kimberly? What happened to the sweet little girl I was taking care of a month ago?"
I finally stopped, my hands clenched into fists by my sides. I was breathing heavily, and the room felt like it was spinning again. Across the room, Kimberly looked just as mad, and on the verge of tears on top of that.
"She's gone," she finally spat.
I blinked. "What?"
"The sweet little girl you were taking care of is gone," she said, her words dripping with venom. "Do you know why?"
I narrowed my eyes at her. "Why?"
She clenched her fists as well, and squeezed her eyes closed as she screamed at the top of her lungs, "Because you turned her into a monster!"
If those words had been a truck, it would have run right over me and smashed me into the wall. I sucked in a breath and glared at Kimberly, fighting not to break down into tears right in front of her. She was right, of course. Everything she was going through was my fault. She had every right to be mad at me, and I... I was yelling at her for it.
What was wrong with her, I had asked. More like, what the hell was wrong with me?
"All right," I managed to croak. My feet felt like lead, but I forced myself to walk towards the door. "If that's what you want, fine. I won't bother you anymore. I won't talk to you. I'll just... leave you alone."
"Good," Kimberly said as I closed the door behind me, and that hurt more than anything else. She wasn't still thinking about it, she had already decided. She wanted me out of her life. I shut the door, feeling like I was closing a book I would never be able to open and read again, and... it hurt so... freaking... much.
"Are you okay?"
I looked up to see Stark standing in the hallway with a concerned look on his face.
"Yeah, I'm fine," I said, ashamed of the tears that I couldn't stop from running down my cheeks. "I just... I just need to calm down."
He sighed and put a hand on my shoulder. "She'll come around eventually, Amber."
I shook my head. "No, she won't. And she shouldn't. This is my fault, and she deserves to hate me as much as she wants. I'm just a..." My breath caught in my throat, and I was barely able to finish my sentence. "A monster."
Stark's expression turned stern. "You knock that off right now, young lady. You are not a monster, and you never have been, you hear me?"
I tried to nod, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. "I'm sorry," I whimpered, unable to look him in the eye. "I need to be alone for a while."
Stark hesitated, but then let go of my shoulder. "All right. Are you coming to dinner?"
I shook my head. Right now, even my mom's chili and baked potatoes didn't sound appetizing.
"I think I'm just going to go to bed," I whispered, and started down the hall. I half expected Stark to come after me, but instead I heard him knock on Kimberly's door. Good. If anyone deserved to be comforted right now, it was her, not me. I came to my bedroom, but stopped. Kimberly's doll was still outside. It wouldn't be right to just leave it out there. With a sigh, I headed for the front door.
The snow had started again while I was inside, and this time it was coming down so hard I didn't doubt there would be a snow day tomorrow. It was practically a blizzard, I thought as I waded through knee deep snow around the cabin until I came to Kimberly's window and looked around. Ken had been wearing blue jeans and a bright purple shirt, so it wouldn't be too difficult to spot him in the snow, even at night.
Voices drifted out of Kimberly's window, hers and Stark's. I tried not to eavesdrop as I searched, but that's not easy when you have ears as sensitive as mine.
"There's something in me," Kimberly was saying. "I feel weird."
"Is that why you're always mad at Amber?" Stark asked.
I paused to listen, but Kimberly didn't answer right away.
"Whenever the moon comes up, I feel small," she said instead, and I sighed. For half a second there, I'd thought she was going to take back what she'd said about me. Stupid of me to get my hopes up, I know.
"Small?" Stark echoed. "What do you mean by that?"
"Small," she said again. "Like... like I'm supposed to be bigger."
I shook my head and went back to looking for Ken. Whatever they were talking about, it wasn't my business. The doll wasn't there, though. I got down on my hands and knees in confusion, digging into the snow. Where was it? She hadn't thrown it that hard, so it shouldn't be that far from the window. I took a couple steps away from the house and started digging again. Still nothing.
What the heck? I wondered, standing back up and trying to ignore how cold I was getting. It was way below freezing now, and the wind wasn't helping matters. The snow was coming down hard, but it wasn't so bad that it could have buried the doll already, so where—
A paw print.
I froze. There, not five feet away from Kimberly's window, was a paw print big enough for me to fit my hand in five times over, and it was quickly filling up with snow. After a few seconds of fighting off my initial wave of terror, I forced myself to breathe, and I finally caught the scent in the air.
"Stark!" I screamed, turning tail and running for the door again. My alpha met me there, having heard my cry from inside. "It's back! It's back, and it was right outside Kimberly's room!"
Stark didn't need any further explanation, he pushed past me and charged out into the snow. I followed, ignoring my mom's commands to come back, and found him kneeling over the print. He turned to look at me, and I could read what he was thinking in his expression.
"I'll come with you," I said.
For a second I thought he was going to tell me to go back inside, but then he gave a quick nod and spun around and dashed into the woods. I followed two steps behind him.
Wolves can't speak the same way humans do, so we communicate in other ways. Slight movements that humans wouldn't even notice speak volumes to us, and scents are like billboards lit up at night. One of these signals, though, is something else entirely. When a werewolf is going to change, any other werewolves near him can feel it. It's almost like telepathy in a way. That was why when Stark shifted, I shifted right along with him.
My body reshaped itself on the fly and I threw myself forward to run on four legs, tearing my clothes apart in an explosion of fur and teeth. The sounds and smells of the forest became even sharper, to the point where they would overwhelm a human brain. I wasn't a human, though. I was a wolf.
Just like I was supposed to be!
Forgetting myself for a moment, I turned my snout up to the cloudy, moonless sky and howled as I ran. Stark growled, and I snapped my mouth shut, embarrassed. What was I thinking, howling like that? We were on a hunt!
After my initial rush adrenaline rush, my human mind quickly took control again, and my fear came back. This wasn't a hunt. Or if it was, we were probably the prey. The scent was still heavy on the ground, but it was quickly being covered up by the snow. I breathed in deep through my nose again, and shuddered.
Ahead of me, Stark skidded to a halt, and I had to do the same or else run into him from behind. The slippery ground didn't provide enough traction, though, and my paws slid out from underneath me, making me slide right past Stark until I bumped into a tree. I scrambled back to my paws, my auburn fur soaked to the skin, and looked at my alpha. His eyes were narrowed, and he was slowly scanning the area. I looked around too, sniffing the air, but couldn't detect anything different. The scent was still everywhere. What was he—
We both saw the splash of color in the snow at the same time, and darted forward to look at it. I was tempted to push my way to the front to get the first glance, but a stern look from Stark sent me backing away with my tail between my legs. He was the alpha, after all. Whatever it was, he got the first bite.
I blinked, and then shook my head. That wasn't right. This wasn't a hunt. Hadn't I told myself that already, just that a few minutes ago? Why was it so hard to concentrate? Why couldn't I—
Stark picked the thing up out of the snow and turned to face me, and my breath caught in my throat when I saw what was dangling from his teeth.
I stepped forward tentatively and sniffed at the doll. Yep, that was Kimberly's— as if there was really any doubt. It was completely destroyed, though. I wouldn't have been able to tell it had once been a doll if not for the few scraps of clothing that clung to it.
The worst part was that it was obvious what had happened to it. Something had chewed Ken to pieces, like a dog ruining its favorite squeaky toy.
I breathed in again, and the scent all over the woods assaulted my nose again. This time, though, I recognized it. It was so obvious now that I felt utterly stupid for not having recognized it before.
The snow was still spilling out of the sky, and when I looked again I saw that the tracks were almost completely filled in. Not only that, but the scent was being washed off the trees now. I looked at Stark, and knew what he was thinking even before he turned and loped back towards the cabin. It was no good trying to track it further tonight. Too dark, too wet, and our trail was rapidly disappearing. Better to just go home before we ended up hurting ourselves.
I followed, but couldn't banish the lurking sense of paranoia that something was watching me from the trees. Things had suddenly become a lot more dangerous. Stark thought he was getting me to safety by bringing me home.
I couldn't imagine his little wooden cabin would offer much protection from Becky the Nandi Bear, though.
NEXT TIME: Ooooh, snap. You guys remember Becky, right? The giant hyena that Mr. Wrogan hit with his sledgehammer, and it didn’t even hurt? Yeah, that Becky. Looks like Hendricks decided to quit using The Octopus and send in the big guns. How’s she going to get out of this one, and how many bodies are going to be left behind?