"Amber? Hello? Earth to Amber!"
Stacey tapped my cheek with one of her pointy purple nails, and I sluggishly turned my head to look at her.
"What do you want?" I asked.
Stacey jerked her finger back, her eyes widening with surprise. "Well, excuse me, princess! I just thought you looked like crap, and felt like I ought to ask what's wrong."
I groaned and rubbed my temples. "I do feel like crap," I answered.
She huffed and crossed her arms. "Well, now I do too. I want an apology."
I sighed. "Do I have to?" When she turned her nose up at me, I rolled my eyes and said, "You have my sincerest apologies, Princess Purple. Will you forgive me for my most egregious transgression?"
That gave her pause. "Well, now that's more like it," she decided. "Princess Purple... I like it. From now on, I want you to address me by my full title."
"Don't count on it," I said, and turned to look out the bus window at the white landscape flashing past.
"What does 'egregious' even mean?"
"No idea. I think I heard it on TV once."
"Sure you didn't hear it at your LARP?"
I frowned and gave her a sharp look, and she smiled coyly. "What? I'm just saying that sounds like a word people would use when they're running around whacking each other with foam swords, pretending to be knights and crap."
I rolled my eyes. "Whatever."
Whether by luck or fate, my trip to town had been on a Friday night, which meant I'd had two whole days to rest after that little adventure. I'd spent almost all of it sleeping and avoiding Stark. He hadn't forced me to interact with him after his big reveal that morning, and I was only too happy to oblige. I wasn't angry at him, not really. I was... I'm not really sure how I felt. I wanted to be mad at him, I knew that much, but, well, things hadn't really changed, had they? I'd come to terms with being a werewolf months ago, so how mad could I be?
At the same time, though, he hadn't told me. I'd been living with him for over two months, and I'd been accepting help from him for even longer than that, and never once had he seen fit to tell me that he was the cause of everything that had happened. That everything I was going through was his fault. I mean, I understood why he hadn't told me. He probably thought I'd hate his freaking guts if he told me. Why open that can of worms if he could help it? That didn't make me okay with it, though.
So I'd spent the entire weekend refusing to be in the same room as him. I hadn't told my mom what he'd said, but the sympathetic looks she kept giving me made me think he'd told her himself. How did she feel about it, I wondered? He wasn't just some kind old werewolf who'd taken us in off the streets anymore, he was the one who had stolen her daughter's humanity.
Worse than that, he'd killed her husband... and my father.
I may not have been mad at him for biting me, but I sure as hell could be mad at him for that. And I was. A deep, dark anger had sprung up inside me, burning in my chest like fire. I could forgive him turning me into a monster. I could forgive him getting me caught up in this ridiculous adventure. I could even forgive him for putting my mom in danger, since she'd come away from it no worse for wear... mostly. What I couldn't forgive him for, not now, not tomorrow, not ever, was taking my dad away. I clenched my fist around my jeans-covered leg, my nails threatening to pierce straight through the fabric and then the skin beneath. I forced myself to let go, not wanting to draw attention to myself by bleeding on the bus. I already had enough unwanted attention.
"You look like you're about ready to murder someone," Stacey said, further ignoring my attempts to ignore her.
"Just about," I growled, my voice becoming more wolf-like than I intended.
Stacey gave me another affronted look. "If you're going to have an attitude, then I'll just talk to myself."
I immediately felt bad for saying that, but I was buried too deep in my own pissed-offness to dwell on it. If there was one thing that I've had to accept over the past few months, it was that I wasn't the same girl I was last year. I literally had a live animal put inside me, my body acting as its cage. I could feel its thoughts and emotions like they were my own, because they were my own. I could try to ignore them, but there's only so much you can block out when you're being battered with it nonstop, day and night. I dare anyone to tell me they could go through that and not change even a little bit. If you can, you're either a liar, or a stronger person than I'll ever be, because I've changed. I've changed so much there are times I listen to the words coming out of my mouth and I can barely recognize my own voice. I look back at the things I've done, and can't believe that I was the one to do them. And one of the biggest changes of all...
I was quickly discovering that I couldn't stand to be around my best friend.
The thought scared me. Stacey and I had been friends since elementary school. I wouldn't exactly call myself antisocial, but I've never gone out of my way to make other friends, either. And since Stacey was, well, Stacey, that meant she made friends about as well as a vampire bat at a blood bank. We were all either of us had, and right the hell out of nowhere I found that I just didn't like her anymore. She was loud, she was nosy, and nothing she said ever made any sense. When she wasn't prying into my private life, she was trying to strap me into a tinfoil hat so that the... I don't know, so the dog Martians from Pluto wouldn't try to steal Canada's syrup. I wasn't nearly as patient a girl as I used to be, and I was finding it more and more difficult to tolerate her.
I felt horrible, but I was quickly losing my ability to care.
Stacey didn't move from our seat, but we rode the rest of the way in silence. The moment we got to the school, she immediately jumped up and was at the door before the driver even had a chance to open it. I waited more patiently, merging with the other students and slowly making my way from the crowded bus to the freezing parking lot. Once I was out standing on the blacktop, I paused for a minute and let the cold wind make my hair dance around my shoulders. My face burned hot with my anger, and the wind felt good against it. After taking a minute to calm down a little, I turned back toward the school and sighed. I was already having a bad day. School was just going to make it worse.
Hoo boy... I had no idea.
I walked inside, trying to close my ears to the cacophony of noise in the cafeteria, and instead turned down the hallway to head for the library. Even the library is never quiet at a high school, but at least the strict librarians did their best to keep the volume at a dull roar. I went in, skirting around a bunch of geeks who were playing some kind of board game, and collapsed in one of the beanbag chairs they had set out for comfortable reading. Leaning back in the cushy, formless seat, I closed my eyes and started to massage my forehead again.
"If anybody's listening out there" I murmured under my breath, "would it be too much to ask for an asteroid to hit the school right now and make all my problems go away?"
"Be careful what you wish for."
My eyes popped open, and I whipped my head around to see Edgar sitting in the beanbag next to me. He grinned his big, stupid boyish smile at me, like he actually expected me to be happy to see him.
"Y'know," he said, clutching a book tight in his hands, "for a school library, this place has got a pretty good selection. Have you ever read anything by Brandon—"
"What the hell do you want?" I growled.
This seemed to catch him off guard, and he sat up straighter. "What are you mad about this time?"
"What am I mad about this time?" I echoed. "I'm mad about the same thing I've been mad about all along!"
Edgar paused to think. "But I made up for it, didn't I? That night when you were about to be killed by the Slayers, and I saved you. You're really still mad at me after that?"
"You saved me?" I asked, incredulously. Slowly, I shifted so that I was sitting up in the beanbag chair. "What do you mean you saved me?"
"I got you out of there before they could kill you!"
"You did diddly squat!" I shot back. "That guy with the glowing eyes saved me. All you did was sit outside and wave at me." I sat back again and resisted the sudden urge to spit on him. "You saved me. That's hilarious."
Ed wilted visibly, but then mustered up the courage to scowl at me. "Why are you always so mean to me?"
I rolled my eyes. "The fact that you even have to ask is pathetic, Edgar."
"I'm trying to help you!"
"Bullcrap! Keeping someone alive just so they can be your guinea pig is the exact opposite of helping them."
"I'm just doing my job."
"Yeah, so were the Nazis in the concentration camps." I stood up, ready to leave. "And if you ask me, you're no better than they are."
I turned to walk away, sure that there wasn't anything else that needed to say, but I hesitated when Ed jumped up right behind me, letting his book fall to the floor, his little preteen body quivering with rage.
"You want to know something?" he hissed.
I turned back to face him and crossed my arms. "Hit me."
"They gave me the choice of whether to protect you or Kimberly," he said. "I chose you because I like you better. You're- you're a really cool girl, Amber. And I thought that if you saw me trying to help you, you might stop thinking I'm such a bad guy!"
I leaned back, surprised. Dang, the shrimp looked like he was about to burst into tears!
He wasn't done yet, though. Balling his fists by his sides, he took a step toward me. "But if this is the way you're going to be, then fine! I'll ask Mr. Wrogan to change my assignment so that I can watch Kimberly instead!"
I blinked, and all feeling leaked out of my heels. Had he just... had he just said what I thought he'd said?
"I'll go where I'm appreciated," he said, giving me a smug grin, obviously mistaking my shock for dismay.
Any other time, I'd have been overjoyed to hear that he was going to leave me alone, but not if that meant he was going to be stalking Kimberly instead. Not my little girl. Not right after we'd finally made up. No, no, no, no...
Something inside me snapped.
"You stay the hell away from Kimberly," I growled, taking a step toward him. He opened his mouth to say something back, but he didn't get the chance because my fist lashed out, punching him square in the cheek. He spun on his toes, almost comically, and then fell to the floor. A hush fell over the library. Ed got to his hands and knees and looked up at me in horror. I realized everyone in the room was staring at me.
I didn't care.
Ed tried to get back up, but I kicked him in the stomach, throwing him onto his back. A kick like that would have knocked the breath out of someone if it'd come from a normal person. I was a werewolf. I wouldn't have been surprised if I'd cracked his ribs.
"Amber, what are you..." he stammered, his hand instinctively going for the inner pocket of the suit jacket he wasn't wearing. He froze, and his eyes went wide when he remembered that he was unarmed. Without his scepter, he was nothing. He must have realized that too, because he got up and made a mad dash for the door.
I chased after him, upending the geek's D&D table as I went. They yelled something at me, but I didn't hear them. I didn't care. There was a rage building up inside of me, starting at my feet and rising higher like a thermometer. I burst through the library door, my feet sliding on the slick stone floor of the school hallway, and took off after Edgar as he ran back toward the cafeteria. There were people in my way. I pushed them all aside.
Let me out! my wolf demanded. Let me out, let me out, LET ME OUT!
I plowed right into a teacher in the cafeteria, making his tray of breakfast food go flying up into the air. Eggs, bacon, and coffee rained down on me, but I hardly noticed. Edgar was already on the other side, running into the part of the school where the band and theater classes practiced. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew I was going to regret this later. I was only too happy to bury that part of me even deeper and focus on the chase. I'd been through too much. Edgar's words had been the straw that broke the camel's back. Now he was going to pay... going to hurt. The hunt was on!
LET ME OUT!
I chased him through the band area, and down another hallway where the gymnasiums were located. I could hear the squeak of shoes on the polished wood floors and the rhythmic thump of the basketballs from behind those doors. Edgar was right in front of me, and my vision zeroed in on him. I was getting closer. With a terrified whimper, Edgar swerved to the left, ducking into one of the locker rooms. The boy's locker room. I went in after him without a moment's hesitation.
"Hey," one of the school jocks hollered when I came barreling in. He was bare chested, dressed only in his boxer shorts. "What the hell do you think you're—"
I picked him up and threw him towards the door like some kind of professional wrestler. He hit the floor hard, rolled a few times, and then came to rest when he ran into one of the benches. He stared at me for a second, and then turned tail and bolted out of the room, still in his underwear. With him gone, that left me and Edgar alone. Slowly, I turned around to scan the room, breathing in through my nose. The scent of sweat, filthy clothes, and boys filled my nostrils, but I could still make out Edgar's smell coming from one of the stalls. I stalked my way across the room. There was no way out. I'd finally trapped him. There was no hurry.
LET... ME... OUT! my wolf demanded again.
Yeah. Why not?
I stripped my shirt off and threw it aside as I drew closer to the stall. No sense in ruining my clothes just to deal with this piece of trash. I still needed something to wear to class after we were done. Fur was already sprouting on my skin, and I gave the stall a savage grin as my teeth sharpened inside my mouth. My pants quickly followed, and I barely managed to get my underwear off before I fell to all fours.
"Edgarrrr..." I growled in my deep, guttural voice. I felt like a true predator, hunting weak, stupid prey, and I loved it. "Coming forrrrr you... rrrr... Eat you!"
Then my face grew into a snout, and I lost the ability to speak.
"Amber?" his squeaky, frightened voice came out of the stall. "Amber, stop! This isn't you! You don't want to—"
With a snarl, I lunged for the door, shredding the thin metal like tinfoil with my claws. Edgar was wrong. This was me. I was the wolf, the wolf was me, and I was tired of fighting my impulses. And there he was, cowering on the toilet like a lawyer facing down a t-rex. I growled at him, and he squeaked again. Biting down on what was left on the door, I gave a jerk and pulled it right off its hinges before letting it fall to the floor with a clatter. I was panting with exhilaration now. Who cared about Edgar? Who cared about any of them? They deserved this, and I deserved to feel their skin between my teeth, taste their blood on my tongue, to gnaw on their—
My ears perked up and I spun around, expecting either Victor or Dex to be there, ready to save their little partner. I bared my teeth, already tensing up to pounce, scratch, bite, kill, eat... but it wasn't either of them.
It was Stacey.
"Oh... my... God," she breathed when I turned to face her. "Omigawd, I knew it. I knew there was something going on with you! You're a..."
She was so shocked she couldn't even finish her sentence. Standing there, watching my best friend stare at my bestial form, suddenly all my rage faded away, and I felt something I hadn't felt in months.
Stacey wasn't looking at me in fear, though, I realized. She looked astounded, caught completely off guard, but not scared.
"Sweet Mother Gaia," I heard her whisper. "Amber, you're a quis lupus mulier est!"
I took a step back. I'm a queer lump of... what now?
She took another step toward me, and my instincts told me to lower myself into a threatening pose. She was an interloper, intruding on my hunt. No, no she wasn't. She was my friend... right? My wolf side was still fighting for control of my brain, and I was having trouble thinking straight.
"This is amazing," she was saying, still coming toward me. "This is, like, Mother Gaia's greatest blessing!"
Wasn't I just thinking that I didn't like her anymore?
That thought froze me like a statue. My wolf side took advantage of my hesitation, and I pulled my lips back and growled at her. Stacey stopped in her tracks, and now it was my turn to advance on her. The anger started to come back. She was just more pink, squishy prey to my wolf, never mind the fact that she was more purple than any human it had ever seen before. She had interrupted my hunt, and was probably going to steal Ed away. No. Edgar was mine. I was the one who’d chased him all the way down here. I'd been the one to trap him. Not the annoying pink and purple thing. The pink and purple thing was prey too, and I didn't share my food with food.
"Um, Amber?" Stacey asked, a flicker of fear finally appearing in her eyes.
I crouched down and bared my teeth. Stacey gasped when it finally occurred to her what was happening. I wasn't some tame puppy dog that would lick your hand and let you scratch behind its ears. I was a wolf, wild and free, and really pissed off!
There was a bright yellow flash and a pain in my head.
Everything went dark.
NEXT TIME: Um, well… crap. What just happened? Is Stacey all right? Did Amber get to her? Did she get… no, of course she didn’t! But, just to make sure, be back next to week to find out!