"Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me," I sang under my breath. Moonlight shone through the open blinds of my bedroom window, and I eagerly sucked it up, letting it recharge me after the long, boring day of school. I slipped a pair of jeans on, and then plucked two shirts out of my closet and held them up. "What do you think? Play it safe, or try to look somewhat attractive?"
One of the shirts was pure white, with lace around the collar and cuffs, and absolutely nowhere a pizza stain wouldn't be noticeable. The other one used to be white, but after years of being dubbed my "yuck shirt" and being used for yard work and gym class, it was covered in so many different colored stains it practically looked tie-dyed. Rebecca lounged on my bed, her head hanging upside down off the edge.
"What do I care?" she asked. "It's not like I'm invited."
"Yeah, sorry," I said, lowering the shirts and looking away awkwardly. "I asked if you could come, but Mom and Stark both said no."
"Meh," she said, shrugging as best she could upside down. "Any party without booze and ice skating ain't a party."
Looking at both the shirts again, I finally settled on the disgusting one, hanging the lacey thing back up in my closet. "Ice skating actually sounds kinda fun," I said, slipping it on. "Maybe I'll ask Stark if we can—"
"Do yourself a favor, Amber, and don't."
"Oh." I picked out a pair of shoes from my closet and put them on. "Okay."
Truth be told, I wasn't all that disappointed that Rebecca wasn't coming. I'd only asked out of common courtesy, and I'd actually been relieved when they told me no. Tonight was special. It wasn't just my birthday, I was becoming an adult.
Well, I thought, it's been my birthday all day, so I guess I'm already any adult.
I didn't feel like a grownup, though. I felt exactly the same as I did yesterday: nervous, paranoid, and afraid. It was the party, I decided. It didn't feel like my birthday because I hadn't had my party yet. I'd had a birthday party every year. Once me, Mom, Stark, and Kimberly went out for pizza, that would, I dunno, be like my birthday confirmation. I'd grow up, leave my childhood behind, and... and...
What came after that?
I shook my head, ridding it of those depressing thoughts. Nothing was going to change. Anyway, this was supposed to be a happy night. Rebecca liked to piss people off, so she got to stay home.
A few seconds later, a knock came from my door.
"Amber?" Mom asked from the other side. "Can I come in?"
The door opened slowly, like Mom was afraid she'd wake me up or something, and she peeked her head in. "Oh my God," she breathed. "Look at you! My little girl's all grown up!"
I wasn't sure what she was looking at, with me wearing old jeans and the nastiest shirt I owned, but I didn't bring it up when I saw her lips pinched together in a tight smile, and her eyes starting to water.
"Come here," she told me, pushing the door open all the way. "Let me get a good look—"
"Mommy, Mommy!" Rebecca interrupted her in a high pitched voice from my bed. "I'm all gwowed up now!"
Mom gave her a sharp look, and then took me by the shoulder. "Let me get a good look at you in the hallway."
"Don't worry about me," Rebecca said as we left. "I think I'll spend the night looking for where Stark hid my fix!"
"If we come home and find you high," Mom snapped, "we're throwing you out! Understand?"
"How dangerous could it be if you're all going out for—"
The rest of her sentence was cut off when Mom slammed the door shut. She huffed, glaring red faced at the door. "I swear, that girl!"
"Her drugs are still in the house?" I asked in confusion.
Mom shook her head. "It's an illegal drug. Stark can't just throw it away, can he? He's got it hidden until he can dispose of it properly." I nodded, but didn't say anything else as Mom turned to face me. "Now, let me look at you!"
We stood like that for over a minute, and I saw Mom's eyes start to tear up again. "You've grown up to be a beautiful woman," she said, sniffling. She paused and wiped her eyes. "I... I just wish your father was here to..."
I reached out and hugged her, pulling my mother closer to me. "I bet he's watching us from Heaven," I whispered, rocking her back and forth a little. "Do you think he's proud of me?"
"Of course he is!" she exclaimed, pulling back to look me in the eye. "He's so proud of you he could burst, and don't you ever tell yourself otherwise!"
I smiled. "Thanks, Mom."
I wasn't sure how he could be proud of me, after everything I'd done since he'd died, but Mom didn't need to know that. Not today.
"Now, look at us," Mom said, drying her eyes, "crying like we're at a funeral. It's your birthday! Come on, let's go stuff ourselves with pizza!"
I was only too happy to oblige, and I followed her down the hallway into the living room, where Stark and Kimberly waited for us.
"Ready to go?" my alpha asked.
"Yep," I said.
"Great. Everyone in the car!"
"Hey, Kimberly," I said as we filed out through the front door to my mom's car, "you remember what I told you earlier?"
"Yeah!" she giggled. "I didn't eat lunch, and now I'm, like, super hungry!"
"Good." I waited until we were both buckled in on opposite sides of the car. "You're gonna have to eat at least this much," I spread my arms as wide as they could go and made a face, "if we're going to finish the whole thing."
"I ain't paying $75 for a pizza," Stark said, climbing into the driver's seat. He gave me a stern look before starting the car up and backing it out of the driveway.
Everyone looked at him in surprise. "Wait," I said, "so we aren't going—"
"That means we're not leaving until every bite is gone!"
"Awwright!" I yelled, doing a little dance in my seat. I thought it was pretty good, but Kimberly still laughed at me.
Thirty minutes later, we pulled in at the restaurant. Classic rock music played loudly over the speakers, and a huge neon sign shaped like a map of the United States revolved above the building, letting everyone in the state know it was called Pepperoni Nation.
"Wow!" Kimberly said as we got out of the car.
"Wow is right," Stark agreed, and led the way inside.
"Welcome to Pepperoni Nation!" the host greeted us with way too much enthusiasm. He was wearing a nice shirt and vest over black pants, but his spiked up purple hair and the roughly two thousand piercings all over his face kept him from looking remotely dignified. "How many are we seating tonight?"
"Four," Stark answered. "We've got a reservation. It's under 'Amber'."
The host checked his list. "Wicked! If you folks'll just follow me."
He led us through the restaurant, and seated us at a table that would have been big enough for at least five more people. There were little walls running around the edges, like something was supposed to fit inside them.
"Can I get you anything to drink?" the purple porcupine asked.
"Root beer," Stark answered, winking at me. "And lots of it."
"Are we talking lots and lots, or lots and lots and lots?"
"The second one."
He jotted something down in his notebook. "And do you know what you want to order, or do you need a minute?"
"We want the American Dream," I exclaimed before anyone else could say anything.
A grin slowly stretched across our waiter's face, and he turned to face the kitchens "Hey, boys, we got us some dreamers out here!"
A resounding cheer echoed out of the kitchen, along with the sound of pots and pans being banged together.
"And what do you want on it?" he asked, turning back to us.
I looked at the rest of the pack. "It's your birthday, Amber," Mom said. "Get whatever you want on it."
"Meat," I answered. "Every kind of meat you've got!
"And extra cheese!" Kimberly chimed in.
I nodded sagely. "So much extra cheese."
"You, mademoiselle, have exquisite taste. We'll get that started for you right away. Do you know the rules?"
"Yep," I said.
"In that case, I'll leave you alone. Y'all need anything, just scream across the restaurant for me. My name is Andre. Later!"
Once Andre was gone, Mom, Kimberly, and Stark all huddled in close to each other.
"Should we do it now?" Stark asked.
"Yeah!" Kimberly agreed.
"Do what?" I asked.
They looked at me and then, as one, rose from their seats. "May I please have everyone's attention?" Stark shouted. His deep baritone voice filled the restaurant with ease. He pointed at me. "This is Amber."
What the hell? I thought, my face turning scarlet with embarrassment. I turned around in my seat to see every eye looking directly at me— and the restaurant was packed!
"Today is Amber's eighteenth birthday," Stark went on. "And so I would like to ask all of you to help us celebrate it."
My eyes went wide, and I spun around in my chair to look at him.
"No, no, no," I whispered to him. "Please don't, I am begging you!"
Stark looked down at me with the most wicked grin I'd ever seen. "If you would all please join me in singing Happy Birthday to her." He raised his fork like a conductor's baton. "One... two... three..."
"I hate you, Stark."
"Happy birthday to you!"
They were actually doing it. Everyone in the restaurant was actually singing that bleeping-bleep-bloop song right along with him. A chorus of voices rang through the large room, even drowning out the rock music. Those were the longest thirty seconds of my life, and I spent all of them glaring daggers at my evil, cruel, sadistic alpha.
"Happy birthday, dear Amber, happy birthday to yooooou!"
Stark bowed dramatically, and sat back down, still grinning while the other guests laughed their stupid little heads off.
"What'd you think?" Stark asked.
"I think I'm going to kill you," I answered. "No, actually I'll let you live, but I'm not going to eat a bite of pizza."
He laughed and looked at Kimberly. "What do you think, can we handle it without her?"
"Can you eat better than you can sing?" she asked in reply.
"Yeah, Stark," I said, putting my arm around her shoulders, "does your eating suck as bad as your singing?"
"Amber," Mom hissed, "don't be rude!"
Stark gave me a sly look. "My singing might be terrible, but it's still better than your fighting."
"Fighting?" Mom echoed. "What fighting?"
"If you want a rematch," I grinned back at him, "I think you're just within my leg's reach under the table."
"Oh, ho! You'll get a rematch. Just don't think that trick's going to work on me twice."
The ribbing went on for half an hour, our jokes getting more and more mean spirited by the minute. None of us cared. We weren't some fragile human family, ready to get offended the first time someone insulted us. We were a pack, a werewolf pack. We may not have been related by blood, but our bond was stronger than a lot of families I'd seen. We laughed, we slugged each other, and more than a little root beer was spilled, making me glad I'd decided to wear my yuck shirt. Kimberly was in the middle of an impromptu monologue on how she could smell Stark's dirty underwear on the other side of town, when...
"Hey, where'd the music go?" Stark asked, looking up at the ceiling.
I grinned in anticipation. "Just watch."
Everyone turned to look just as the kitchen doors flew open and a small army of chefs marched through them. On their shoulders they carried a gigantic tray, balanced between them on poles like the Ark of the Covenant. Others walked in front of them carrying live sparklers.
"God bless America," they sang, their voices ringing through the restaurant in the most out of tune performance of the song I'd ever heard. "Land that I love! Stand beside her and guide her..."
"Ho-ly crap," Stark muttered as they came closer and he caught sight of what it was they were carrying. "It really is as big as the table!"
The chefs raised the tray above their heads and worked together to position it over our table.
"God bless America," they sang, and lowered it down in front of us. "My home sweet home!"
My mouth started watering before the pizza had even touched the table. A cloud of steam rose up off of it, and I had to close my eyes to keep them from burning, but when I opened them again...
"That," I said, breathless with awe, "is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen."
"The American Dream is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," Andre said, coming up to the table with his hands pressed reverently together. "Basically, everything this pizza will give you. From all of us to all of you, Pepperoni Nation hopes this makes all your dreams come true."
The chefs all let out a wild cheer and made their way back to the kitchen in a conga line.
"Let me know if you need anything!" Andre said just before he danced away at the tail of the line.
I breathed in the tantalizing smell of the American Dream. So much cheese, so much sauce, pepperoni, Italian sausage, Canadian bacon. I absentmindedly raised my napkin to dab at a line of drool that was trailing from my mouth. They were right, this one pizza would make all my dreams come true...
"Wow," Kimberly said again.
"I'm having second thoughts," Stark mumbled. "I don't know if we'll be able to eat that entire thing."
I reached out and patted his arm. "Don't give up yet, Stark. I believe in you!"
He shook his head. "$75 for a pizza..."
"Only if we don't finish it!"
We all scooted our chairs closer to the table in preparation.
"Silverpack," Stark said, his voice solemn, "I know we've been through a lot together over the past couple months, but this... this is something else entirely. This may be the most difficult thing we'll ever have to do. I just want you to know, no matter what happens, I'm honored to have been your alpha."
"Same to you," I replied, just as seriously. "Except, you know, I'm not your alpha. Neither is Kimberly. We're just your—"
"Shut up and eat."
He didn't have to tell any of us twice. Cheese and sauce flew through the air under the ravenous hunger of three werewolves and one werewolf's mom. The pizza warmed our stomachs that cold February night, but there was an even stronger warmth in my heart. Life sucked. I'd had no choice but to accept that over the past few months. But sometimes, once in a while, it didn't suck. This was one of those times. Tomorrow, it would probably go back to sucking. I wasn't going to worry about that tonight, though. Tonight, I wasn't going to think about Hendricks, or Becky, or Majestic, or how I might turn into a rampaging monster. Tonight, I was going to spend my birthday with the people who I cared about more than anything else in the world. Tonight I was going to be really, truly happy.
And I was going to eat like a king!
NEXT TIME: Us authors get a bad rap sometimes, you know? People think we exist solely to make our characters’ lives miserable. Well, they’re right, but sometimes we’ll drag that tiny bit of humanity up from the bottoms of our souls and let something nice happen to them. That makes what will inevitably happen later hurt even more. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go order pizza…