Most people would think that two unscheduled months out of school would be awesome, and to be fair, they'd be right. While I wouldn't exactly call my time spent with the Swag Pag fun, what people don't realize is that after all that time going back to school can be freaking exhausting. That's why, after eight hours of sitting, socializing, and learning, I slogged my way back to Stark's cabin, collapsed in bed and slept all night long.
When I woke up the next morning, the tension was so thick in the air I almost choked on it.
My skin was already crawling when I got out of bed and slipped my house shoes on. Something was very wrong. The wolf part of me could sense the mood of my packmates. While I couldn't exactly read their minds, it was still strong enough for me to feel it all the way on the other side of the house.
I found Stark and my mom in the living room with the TV on. They were both sitting on the same couch. Stark was leaning heavily on the armrest, and Mom was sitting next to him, despite that putting her right in the middle of the couch.
"Amber," Stark said, gruffly motioning for me to join him, "take a look at this."
Mom gasped when she saw me standing at the entrance to the room, and quickly scooted to the other side of the couch. My stomach grew even heavy.
What are you up to, Mom?
I sat down in one of the recliners facing the TV, and Stark turned up the volume. An aerial shot was panning across a neighborhood where one of the houses was quickly going up in flames.
"... say they don't know how the fire started, but they think there may have been a gas leak," the reporter was saying. "The firefighters have managed to keep the fire from spreading, but the neighbors are being urged to leave their homes until the blaze has been put out."
"Amber, do you recognize that place?" Stark asked.
I shook my head. "No, should I?"
"Authorities say this is notable because of the double murders that occurred in this same house just a month ago," the reporter went on. "Two bodies were found by the police, one shot and the other, apparently, stabbed multiple times in the throat."
I jumped in my seat and leaned in closer to the screen. No way. Could it really be? When I looked closer, I could vaguely recognize...
"What the hell?" I asked, standing up. "Is that..."
"Your old packhouse," Stark said, confirming my suspicions. "Someone set the place on fire."
My body went numb, all the feelings leaking out of my heels, and I stared dumbly at the TV for a minute.
"Why?" I finally asked, shaking my head in bewilderment.
I wasn't upset that the house was being burned down. I hated the time I'd spent under D.K.'s control, especially since it had ended with the only person I trusted in the pack being shot. The image of Tyler slumped against the wall, bleeding out of his throat while the sound of sizzling flesh filled the room, flashed through my mind, and I shuddered.
"That's a good question," Stark said, and turned the TV off, leaving the room in darkness. I could still see his face by the sunlight peeking through the blinds, and it was so solemn that it made me shiver again. "Nobody's been living in that house since you moved out, right?"
I nodded. "Not unless Kaylie came back, and I doubt she did."
"Who else knew you were living there besides your packmates?" he asked.
"The Majestic goons," I said. "And..."
I stopped short. Suddenly, the room felt a lot colder than before.
I stood up, the mere mention of him enough to spike my blood with adrenaline. I was hyperventilating.
"It's... what... he can't..." I stuttered, staring at the TV screen like I thought he would pop out of it.
"Amber, calm down," Stark ordered.
I took a deep breath and sat down, wrapping my arms around myself for comfort. As weak as it makes me sound, just hearing my alpha tell me to calm down was an immense comfort. But Hendricks... just by thinking the name, I was assaulted by mental images of the black-eyed, shark-toothed demon and the way he'd completely torn my life apart just to make a quick buck.
"It can't be him," I managed to say. "He- he left. Fisher told him something he wanted to know... something about somebody being on an island that isn't supposed to exist... and he went there."
"Did you think he wouldn't come back?" Stark asked.
I shook my head, and finally realized how stupid I had been.
"But why is he still after me?" I asked. "He only wanted me to trade for Fisher's information."
Stark sighed and shrugged. "I wish I could tell you. A mind like his probably doesn't need a reason to come after a scared young lady."
I looked at my mom, and saw how tight her lips were pressed together. We hadn't even said his name, but she already knew who we were talking about.
"Do you think he knows where I am?" I asked.
To my relief, Stark shook his head without hesitation. "No, I don't. If he did, he wouldn't waste time burning down an old house. He's trying to send you a message."
"He's trying to scare me."
Stark nodded. "Yeah. That too."
"So, what do we do?"
Stark was quiet for a minute, and then he leaned back in his seat and crossed his legs. "I need to think about it. Go get Kimberly up and get ready for school. I'll decide on something before you have to leave."
"You can't be saying you want them to go to school with that... that thing out there!" my mom shrieked, putting her hands on his shoulder.
"I don't know," Stark muttered into his mustache.
"Amber, go get Kimberly."
I nodded and got up. I could hear my mom harping at Stark from all the way down the hallway, and that wasn't just because of my werewolf hearing. She was complaining so loudly that I probably could have heard her from the woods outside.
She'd better cut that out, I thought as I headed for Kimberly's room, or it'll be her fault when they find out where I am.
Thing is, I was only half joking when I thought that.
The fact that Mom kept arguing with Stark, even when he made it clear it wasn't her decision, was a testament to her humanity. As the Silverpack's alpha, neither me nor Kimberly would have been able to defy him like that. That's just how it is when you're a werewolf. That's why D.K. had been able to keep the Swag Pag under his thumb for so long. Challenging your alpha went against every one of a wolf's instincts.
"Hey," I said, nudging Kimberly's shoulder, "Stark says it's time to get up."
I said his name on purpose, because she might have ignored me if the order had been mine alone. Saying the alpha told her to do it wouldn't give her a choice. That didn't stop her from giving me a venomous glare when she opened her eyes, though.
"Hurry and get dressed," I said, making for the door. "Stark wants to talk to us both."
"He should feed you to a dinosaur," I heard her grumble. I paused just outside her door, but then shook my head and kept walking. Things were already tense enough after the news report. The last thing any of us needed was for me to get in a fight with Kimberly.
Retreating to my own room, I rummaged through the pile of clothes I hadn't bothered to hang up after laundry day, sniffing each of them in turn. That's one advantage to being a werewolf. Our noses are so keen that we can pick out our outfit by that alone. Basically, if we can't smell anything nasty on it, neither will a human. Once I'd selected a shirt and a pair of pants that didn't smell like sweat and farts, I gathered all my school books and headed for the living room again. A couple seconds later, I heard Kimberly's door open as she followed behind me.
Mom and Stark were still arguing when I got there. Mom was even more agitated than before, and was pacing the room and waving her hands around while she ranted. Compared to her, Stark looked positively relaxed as he reclined on the couch with his legs crossed. When he spoke, his voice was calm and collected. Like any good alpha, he knew how to hide his uneasiness. In fact, the only thing that gave away his true feelings was the way he incessantly tapped his finger on the armrest— something my mom probably didn't even notice.
They both turned to look at us when Kimberly and I came into the room. Stark held up his hand, and my mom stopped talking midsentence.
"I've decided that it's for the best that you keep going to school," he said. My mom gave an exasperated sigh and sat down heavily in one of the recliners.
"Why?" Kimberly asked, still sleepily rubbing her eyes. "Is it a snow day?"
Stark looked at her, and for the first time that morning he cracked a smile. "Young lady, even I'm not cruel enough to make you go to school on a snow day. No, we just saw on the news..."
I clenched my fist nervously. How much was it okay to tell her? She had never gotten involved with Hendricks like I did, but he had affected her life more than a little as well. As bratty as she'd been over the past few weeks, I still didn't want to scare her more than I had to.
"... Hendricks burned down the house you and Amber were living in before you came here," Stark concluded, rudely ignoring the argument I'd just had inside my head.
Kimberly's eyes widened when she heard this, but then she shook her head. "Who's that?"
I let out a sigh of relief. "Nobody you need to worry about," I said, putting my hand on her shoulder. "We're going to take care of him."
She shrugged my hand off with a scowl, but didn't ask any more questions.
"Go wait in the kitchen, Kimmie," Mom said, standing up to usher her out of the living room. "I'll be in there in just a minute to make you some breakfast."
I jumped a little, and spun around to look at them.
She's never let me call her Kimmie before! I thought, a flush of anger rising to my cheeks. What did my mom do to...
Oh, right. She didn't turn her into a werewolf.
As soon as Kimberly was out of the room, Mom turned and faced Stark again.
"How can you make them do that?" she snapped. "Do you want them—"
"I most certainly do not want them to be killed," he snapped, a trace of irritation finally showing on his face. "But I’m also not going to let that demon scare us like this. If he thinks he's got us too scared to set foot out our door, then he doesn't know who he's dealing with."
My mom wilted a little. "But..."
"Don't worry," he reassured her, getting to his feet. "Amber and Kimberly's safety is my top priority. If I think, for even one minute, that Hendricks is going to move against them, I'll have them back in this cabin before you can say 'pancakes.'"
"Pancakes," my mom echoed, giving him a flat stare.
Stark shrugged. "I haven't had breakfast, all right?"
Even though Mom spent the whole morning giving him dirty looks, she didn't argue anymore. However, when I was heading for the door, she grabbed my shoulder. I stopped short, but wasn't fast enough to keep from almost pulling her off her feet.
"I'm never going to get used to how strong you are now," she grumbled once she'd regained her balance.
I shrugged. "Sorry, but there's not much I can do about that."
"Just..." she looked at Stark in the kitchen, who was eating his breakfast in silence, and leaned in closer to me and whispered, "Just be careful, okay? If you think anything's wrong, I want you to run straight home. Got it?"
Inside me, my wolf growled.
"Mom," I said sternly, "I'm going to be fine, and so is Kimberly."
"I'm not going to let you lock me inside the house again. Remember what happened last time?"
She frowned, but backed away. In truth, she hadn't kept me locked up long enough for anything to happen. That was when Hendricks had first appeared and taken her hostage, but that hadn't had anything to do with it. I felt a little bad for reminding her about that, especially after what we'd just seen on the news, but that was dwarfed by how badly I wanted to not be caged again. I'm a werewolf, which meant that at least half of what I am is a wild animal. We tolerated having walls around us so long as we knew we'd be able to leave whenever we wanted, but the minute you try to trap us inside... bad things happened.
"Bye," I said, and gave her a quick hug. "I'll see you after school. Try not to worry too much, okay?"
Before she could say anything else, I spun around and ducked out the door. Kimberly followed a few steps behind me, slamming the door as we crunched out into the snow.
She didn't try to talk to me on our way to the bus stop, and this time I didn't start a conversation. Despite the brave face I put on in front of my mom, I was more shaken than I wanted to admit. Hendricks was bad news. Like, the definition of bad news. A demon so powerful that even those goons at Majestic were scared of him.
I thought about his pupil-less black eyes, and shivered...
And then froze.
My skin was crawling under my clothes, and suddenly my heart started beating a mile a minute.
Something was watching me.
A breeze blew through the trees, but when I breathed in through my nose I couldn't detect any strange scents.
"It's just nerves," I said under my breath. Stark was right. If Hendricks knew where we were, he wouldn't have wasted time burning down an empty house. He would have come straight for us, which meant what I was feeling was just...
"You should listen to your feelings," a familiar voice said into my head. "Your wolf side can pick up on things like that better than normal people."
I went rigid, my gasp puffing out in front of me in a little white cloud. My skin started to crawl again, the sensation even stronger than before. My hands reached up and squeezed my backpack straps, just looking for something to touch. Ahead of me, Kimberly stopped walking and turned to give me a grumpy look.
She's not sensing anything, I thought. Does that mean I'm imagining things, or...
Or is it only looking at me?
Not giving myself any more time to think about it, I spun around and looked into the forest.
All at once, the feelings went away and I breathed a sigh of relief. Either whatever was watching me was gone, or I had been imagining it all along.
"What's your problem?" Kimberly asked.
I shook my head. "Nothing. Come on, we're going to miss the bus."
We made it there just as Kimberly's bus pulled up, and I ushered her onto it with a firm push. I was trying to convince myself I had just been imagining things before, but I was still on edge, waiting for those invisible eyes to find me again.
"Be calm," I whispered to myself. "Breathe."
It was probably just some animal watching me from the forest. Usually my senses only act up like that when there's a threat, but maybe all my worrying about Hendricks had kicked them into overdrive or something, reacting to every little thing. Still, even if I was a little nervous I couldn't imagine my wolf side getting freaked out over a squirrel or bunny rabbit.
Something was going on here.
The bus pulled up beside me, and the hiss of its brakes jolted me out of my thoughts. The door swung open and I all but jumped inside.
"Hey" Stacey said when I sat down next to her. "So, I was thinking..."
Her voice faded into a barely dull buzz as I settled in to think. Luckily, she was in one of her moods where she didn't really care if I was listening or not so long as she got to rattle off every little thing that came into her head.
To say that I was thinking might have been an overstatement. More than anything, I spent the entire bus ride worrying. Worrying about what Hendricks might be up to, whether he knew where I was, and what he would do if he found me. I knew that there was no point in worrying— in fact, turning my hair white over this was probably exactly what Hendricks wanted me to do. Still, this wasn't some out of sight, out of mind kind of thing either.
I took a deep breath as the bus pulled to a stop just outside my school. Everyone got up to inch their way down the narrow aisle toward the door, and I pushed my way into the middle of the line, careful not to start a domino chain of teenagers with my inhuman strength.
I would keep my eyes open, but I wouldn't be paranoid, I told myself as I stepped onto the sidewalk and headed for the door. I would be cautious, but not afraid. I would—
I snapped out of my trance, and realized Stacey was slapping my arm frantically.
"Hey," she said again, "don't you know that guy?"
"What guy?" I asked, scanning the crowd.
I spotted him just as Stacey pointed him out to me.
"Him. Isn't he that creepy kid who—"
I didn't wait for her to finish. I set off through the crowd, pushing people aside, not caring if I made a scene, until I got to the lunch table he was sitting at. Before he could look up, I slammed both fists down on the table, making him scream and fall backwards out of his chair.
He got up a few seconds later, fixing his glasses.
"If you think you're going to get my lunch money, you're in for..." he froze when he looked up and finally saw me. "Oh."
It may have looked weird on a human face, but I bared my teeth at him anyway.
"What do you think you're doing here, Edgar?"
NEXT TIME: First Hendricks, and now Edgar! Looks like the plot has arrived, and it’s ready for some action! Or maybe awkwardness. Probably awkwardness.