Chapter Thirty Six

"So, you actually, like, go to school and crap?" Rebecca asked.

 

I yawned as I slipped my shirt on, and popped the kinks out of my neck.

 

"Yeah, and trust me," I answered, "being a werewolf doesn't make that crap any less crappy."

 

She grinned from my bed. "Crap is crap, huh?"

 

"The crappiest of crap."

 

"Craptastic!"

 

I snorted and bent down to tie my shoes.  For a druggie, Rebecca was pretty funny.  Wait... that's okay to say, right?  Forget it.

 

"You gonna be okay here by yourself?" I asked.

 

"You kidding?" Rebecca laid her head back down. "I haven't slept in a bed like this in years!  Bring me some food, and I'll stay here all day."

 

"Sorry, not gonna happen," I said. "There's plenty of food in the kitchen, help yourself to whatever you want."

 

I put my hand on the doorknob, but stopped when Rebecca said my name.

 

"Wait a sec," she rolled over and looked at me again.

 

"What's up?"

 

"Do you... am I really going to be safe here?"

 

I let my hand fall to my side again. "From who?  Hendricks or Stark?"

 

She shrugged. "Both, I guess.  Plus, your mom's kinda scary when she gets pissed off."

 

I nodded. "Yeah, I'll give you that one." I paused and sighed, looking out the window. "You don't have to worry about Stark.  He's...  He's a good guy."

 

I still hated saying that about the guy who killed my dad, but he really was trying to make up for it.  I couldn't just ignore that, could I?

 

"And Hendricks..." I paused and made a face. "Yeah, I have no idea what he's gonna do.  But Stark was right, you're safer from him here than you are out there."

 

"Gee, that's so freaking comforting," Rebecca grumbled, but she rolled onto her back and closed her eyes anyway.

 

"All right, well, I'll see you later," I said, stepping into the hallway.  When I closed the door behind me, she was already snoring.

 

I ate breakfast, wrestled Kimberly into her coat, and headed for the door.

 

"Did your vampire friend spend the night again?" she asked, clomping down the hallway in her snow boots.

 

"Nope," I answered, giving my door a glance as we passed.  "Her name's Rebecca.  She showed up last night.  She'll, uh, be visiting for a while."

 

Kimberly looked up at me as I held the front door open for her. "Was she naked when she came?"

 

I blinked. "What in the world makes you think that?"

 

Kimberly shrugged and trudged into the snow. "You locked my door and told me not to come out.  I thought maybe she was naked and you didn't want me to see."

 

I burst out laughing as I closed the door behind me.  Kids...

 

To my surprise, I found Stark waiting for us at the end of the driveway.

 

"Morning," I said, but stopped when Stark wrapped his meaty fist around my forearm.

 

"Kimberly," he said, not taking his eyes off of mine, "go back inside.  Mrs. Pace will walk you to the bus stop in a few minutes."

 

Kimberly looked from me to Stark, just as surprised by this sudden turn of events as I was.  She couldn't resist a command from her alpha, though, so she turned tail and went back in.  As soon as the door shut behind her, Stark's grip on my arm tightened painfully.

 

"Get in the truck," he said darkly, nodding towards his pickup truck parked at the other end of the driveway.

 

His influence washed over me too, and I did as he said, but that didn't stop me from asking, "Why?  What's going on?"

 

"Get in," he said, sliding into the driver's seat. "I'm driving you to school."

 

I got in the passenger seat and buckled up.  Stark started the truck up and backed out of the driveway without a word, but as we left the cabin behind I noticed the tension building in the air.  Stark was gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles, and the look on his face was grim.

 

"So, uh," I said, looking out the window, "what are the chances of Hendricks coming back here?"

 

"Very high," he grunted without taking his eyes off the road. "But I've been out all night setting up more wards.  They're still not demon level, but at least we know that lower level ones still work on him if we have enough of them."

 

"And now that you've put even more up," I reasoned, "they'll keep him out even better."

 

Stark gave a sharp nod. "That's the idea, yes."

 

We rode in silence for a while.  Stark pulled out onto the highway and turned towards town, driving slowly on the icy roads.  With every passing minute, the tension got heavier until I thought I was going to suffocate in it.  Finally, when I was beginning to think Stark was just going to let me drown, he turned to look at me.

 

"You did it again last night."

 

I stiffened. "I did what?" I asked, even though I had a pretty good idea I already knew what he was talking about.

 

"You disobeyed a direct order given to you by your alpha," he clarified.

 

"I couldn't just let Rebecca get killed because I'm too chicken to face Hendricks," I shot back. "Enough people have suffered because of me.  I won't let it happen anymore."

 

Stark cursed and struck the steering wheel. "And what about what we talked about yesterday?  Dagnabbit, Amber, it hasn't even been a whole day!"

 

I crossed my arms and scowled at him. "What about it?  If I'm learning how to fight so I'll be able to keep Mom and Kimberly safe, why can't I use it to help other people too?"

 

"Because Kimberly and your mother are your top priority!"

 

"And, what, I can't have other priorities besides—"

 

"Amber, shut your mouth and listen to me."

 

I might have disobeyed Stark last night, in the middle of an emergency, but when he looked straight at me with those cold blue eyes, less than a foot away from me, my mouth snapped shut like a Pez dispenser.

 

"When you went out there, you broke your promise.  By opening that door, you put the ones you swore to protect in danger!"

 

I froze and sat up straighter.  "What?  I- I did not!  All I did was..."

 

My voice trailed off as my initial wave of anger faded. I sucked in a shaky breath and sat back in my seat, my hands suddenly trembling.

 

"Th- They were already in danger," I managed to say. "Hendricks could have—"

 

"I don't care, Amber!  I don't care if he could have collapsed the house, or brought an asteroid down on us, or whatever it is he does.  When you went to face him, you abandoned your mother and Kimberly.  You made a promise, and you broke it!"

 

Stark's words echoed in my ears, burrowing their way into my brain like a colony of termites with low self-esteem, and I slumped over.

 

"I didn't mean to," I said. "But you were just going to let him kill her!"

 

Stark didn't answer right away.  He floored the gas pedal, coming right up behind the driver in front of us.  He honked his horn, and then swerved into the left lane and sped past him, apparently forgetting for a minute that there was ice on the roads.  When he turned back into our lane, I felt his back tires fishtail behind us, and I gasped and grabbed the sides of my seat until Stark righted the truck and slowed back down to a reasonable speed.

 

"And do you think I'm proud of that?" he demanded, looking fixedly at the road in front of us. "Well, I'm not.  I would have seen that poor girl's face in my dreams for years if Hendricks had carried out his threat."

 

He paused and looked at me again, his expression softening a little. "There's already so much innocent blood on my hands.  The last thing I want is more.  But I've done it, and I'll do it again.  Do you know why, Amber?"

 

I looked down at my lap. "Because we're your top priority," I whispered.

 

Stark nodded.

 

"There's already so much innocent blood on my hands."

 

Dad...

 

"You've got a good heart in you," Stark said, bringing my attention back to him. "I didn't think for a minute that you did what you did to put your mom and Kimberly in danger.  But you've got to start thinking these things through!  And you've got to start listening to me.  I know it can be hard, but I don't tell you things like that because I'm some coldhearted monster."

 

"I know," I whispered.

 

I felt a warm hand touch my back, and I looked up at Stark.  His eyes weren't cold anymore.

 

"Sometimes protecting the people you love," he said softly, "means sacrificing someone you don't."

 

"That's horrible."

 

"Yeah, it is," Stark put his hand back on the steering wheel again. "But the world's a terrible place.  You can't change it, not really.  All you can do is survive, and try not to let it screw you up too much."

 

He put on his brakes, and I looked out the window to see that we were in the school parking lot.

 

"I'm sorry," I said. "I won't do it again."

 

Stark looked me in the eye, and then nodded in satisfaction.

 

"For what it's worth," he said after a moment's hesitation, "good job last night.  I'm still not happy that you disobeyed me.  I'm pretty pissed, in fact.  But you did manage to save that girl and drive Hendricks away.  Not just anybody could do that."

 

A sly smile crinkled his rough face, and I felt a little spark of pride ignite in my chest.

 

"Have a good day at school," he said as I unbuckled and opened the door.

 

"I'll try.  Thanks for the ride!"

 

I slammed the door and headed for the school, turning around and waving.  Stark waved back, and then put the truck in gear and drove off.  I sucked in a breath of the cold winter air.  I'd just had my butt chewed out by the guy who killed my dad, and now I was walking away feeling better about myself than I had in weeks.  How weird is that?

 

The first bell rang as soon as soon as I got inside, so I immediately turned and headed for class. As I walked, my thoughts began to wander. Stark was right, I really had broken my promise last night. I couldn't keep living like this, jumping headfirst into trouble without thinking things through. Frankly, it was a miracle that I wasn't already dead. Luck like that wouldn't last forever.

 

On the other hand, if I were to somehow be taken back in time to last night, I don't know if I'd be able to do things any differently. I could still see Rebecca's frightened face pressed up against Hendricks' coat, his cane pointed at her head like a gun. Sometimes keeping one person safe meant not protecting someone else, Stark had said, and he was right about that too. Even with that in mind, I don't know if I'd have been able to sacrifice her. Stark was right about a lot of things, but there was one thing he was wrong about: Rebecca's blood wouldn't have been on his hands, it would have been on mine. Hendricks was after me. He'd come to the cabin trying to capture me. Not Stark, not Kimberly, not Mom. Me. Rebecca had been kidnapped and used as a hostage because of me. Not for the first time, I began to wonder how much better everyone's life would be if I wasn't there.

 

I stopped, the thought taking more of my high spirits than I'd expected, and put my hand on the wall of lockers to steady myself. A few seconds later, I pushed on, trying to banish those thoughts from my mind. It wouldn't stay this way for long. Stark was teaching me to fight. Pretty soon I'd be able to protect Mom and Kimberly, and Stark wouldn't have to be our only hope for safety. I just had to focus on my training and get stronger, faster, and—

 

BIGGER.

 

The word rolled through my head like thunder, shaking me from the inside out, and I gasped and almost fell over again. I stopped in the middle of the hallway, gasping for breath. The other students were giving me weird looks, but I ignored them. Something... something wasn't right.

 

What the hell had that been? It had felt like when my wolf side chimed in on my human thoughts, except more powerful. In that one instant it had spoken, it had threatened to blot out my entire human mind. What would it have been replaced with? I had no idea.

 

I shuddered and picked myself up again. I only had a couple minutes left to get to class. I could worry more about it there.

 

What's the matter with you? I thought, mentally tapping into my animalistic side. Are you throwing a tantrum or something?

 

Hungry, it said back, completely unhelpfully. No go sit place. Find snack!

 

I shook my head. I'd eaten breakfast less than an hour ago, but my wolf considered the slightest hint of peckishness to be one step away from starving to death.

 

You said ‘bigger’, I told it. Bigger what? What's not big enough?

 

The wolf hesitated, trying to make sense of my human words and thoughts.

 

Bigger... snack? it finally said.

 

"Oh, shut up," I grumbled. "I'm not getting fat because of you."

 

Weak, stupid prey, it growled before going back to sleep. Well, it didn't so much go to sleep as it did let my human mind take full control again, but I've always thought that was a pretty good way to describe it.

 

There was a small crowd outside my history class when I got there. A quick glance told me they were my classmates.

 

"Is Mr. Ragg late?" I asked.

 

The guy standing next to me shook his head and pointed at the door. "I don't think he's coming at all."

 

Another sub? I wondered, gently pushing myself to the front of the group. It looked like there was a sign taped to the door. Maybe he's sick. Hope he's...

 

My thoughts trailed away when I got close enough to read the sign.

 

"History class has been cancelled because it's stupid," it declared, black permanent marker easily legible against the pure white of the printer paper. "Go to the computer lab and don't look up porn."

 

It was what was written underneath that, in smaller, tighter script, that caught my attention, though.

 

"Except for you, Amber. Get your butt in here!"

 

NEXT TIME: Oh boy, here we go.  Looks like Dex has taken over history class again.  What’s so important that he couldn’t tell her while he was at her house last night?

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