In Which It's Time to Leave
I sat down on the sofa, on the other side of the living room from Gram. I watched the news -- for once turned to a topic away from my doings -- and gathered up my nerves. “So,” I said, “what do you think of...news lately?”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“You know what I mean. The, um, the lycans. What do you think of it?”
“Well, Hailee, I’m not really sure what to think of it.” She sipped her tea. “Your father believed it. Never stopped talking about it.”
There it was. My window. “Uh, yeah, Gram?”
“That’s what I wanted to talk about. He -- Dad, I mean, he didn’t just believe in lycans, Gram.” This was where I lost my nerve, paused momentarily. “He was one.”
My grandmother took this surprisingly in stride. She put her tea mug down, folded her hands across her chest. I could almost see the gears, the cogs turning, working, in her brain. “Okay,” she said carefully. “Okay. And how would you know this, exactly?”
I took a very deep breath, looking at my hands. Oddly, I didn’t feel as nervous now. There was no going back -- might as well, right? “Because, Gram...because the condition is hereditary.” I looked up with glowing yellow eyes, and held out my clawed hands. “Because I am one.”
This, she didn’t take as well. She jumped out of her chair, stumbling back. “Oh my God,” she breathed. “Oh my God.”
“It’s okay,” I quickly reassured her, clamoring to my feet. “It’s okay. I’m still me.” I opened my arms, giving her a full view as I slowly changed back. “See? I’m still Hailee. Everything’s okay. I know I look scary, but I would never, never hurt you. I promise.” I sat back down, and she very cautiously followed suit. “Do you believe me, Gram? I promise I’ll never hurt you.”
“Of course,” Gram said. Her voice shook, her hands too as she reclaimed her tea. “I know you would never hurt me, but, well, it’s definitely a shock.”
“Oh, I know it’s a shock. But please, hear me out.”
“I’ll hear you out, Hailee. I just want to know...things. I want to know a whole lot of things, actually. About how this...thing works.”
“‘Thing,’” I said thoughtfully. “Somehow, that sounds nicer than anything else you could say.”
“Curse. Disease. Mutation. Take your pick. Yes, of course, I’ll talk to you about anything.” And I did. In the shortest time possible, I covered everything: full moons and half moons, the details of the Change (when it would hit, what its effects were, etc), our weakness and how the hunters used them against us, the Code, wolfpacks and eventually, Alphas. “In Three Brothers, that was Dad. Now,” I tapped the ring on my finger, “it’s me.” The ring, I explained, was rather like a signet, a symbol of our family’s power.
Gram rubbed her temples. “That’s a lot to take in.”
“I know, I know.” I wasn’t done yet, either. “Gram, please don’t take this personally, but I’m going to have to go away again.”
This, she took worst of all. She shook her head aggressively. “No, Hailee, no. I’m not going to lose you again. I can’t. I can’t lose you again, Hailee!”
“Gram, listen --”
“What if you get hurt, Hailee? What if you get killed, have you thought of that?”
“Gram!” I yelled. “Listen!” She went quiet. “If I don’t go, you will lose me. I will get hurt, I might get killed, and you might get hurt too. The people after me now do not play around, okay? They will hurt anyone who gets in their way. I’m living proof!” I rolled my sleeve up, revealing the place where I’d been shot in Little Rock. The scar branched out in a white, veiny sun pattern from a nasty red center. Of all the scars I’d ever received, this horribly ugly thing was the first I ever felt compelled to cover. The first I was ever ashamed of.
Gram’s hand flew to her mouth. “Sweet Jesus!”
“Silver bullet to the shoulder. If this had been an inch or two down and left, I wouldn’t be here now.” In fact, there were a thousand tiny mercies that saved my life that day. If Tyrone had been more focused, if Lester had shot first, if I hadn’t moved fast enough, if Mark hadn’t...well, if he hadn’t. Without any of these seemingly small factors, I’d be another tally mark on Tyrone’s record, dying at five in the evening in a stairwell. Honestly, it was a bit of a miracle.
We let it be quiet for a while, and I watched the gears turn and turn again in Gram’s head. Then, she asked me, “So, who else is in this, er, this wolfpack of yours?”
“Levi? Your dad’s biker friend? The one-eyed man?”
“Yes, him. The new boy in town, Jason Kingsley. Victoria Castle, from church.”
“Vic Castle? Really? I never would have guessed.”
“Yes, and Fredrick Roland, I’m not sure if you know him. I think he works at some diner in town.” Or he did, until yesterday. He’d given a week’s notice the moment he learned of the Tennessee plan. So had Vic. Their paychecks were part of what was funding the trip. “Then there’s Thalia Cleverly, whom you definitely don’t know. She’s new. Mark Prosper, too, before he died.”
“Mark Prosper?” she asked, surprised. “I thought you hated Mark Prosper.”
“I did, for a long time. But, things change.” It felt wrong, and at the same time totally right, to include his name. Yes, he resisted it. At first, he made it clear he’d rather die than be one of “us.” In the end, though, it was “us” that he had died for. That made him as much a hero as Thalia or any other in my mind. Certainly more a hero than me.
“So.” She swallowed. “Where will you be going?”
“Tennessee. One of the largest wolfpacks in the country, largest in the South I think, is in Nashville. Its Alpha is a man named Adam Dark. We’re going there to ask for his help.”
“And if he doesn’t give it to you?”
I shrugged. “We lay low. Jason has friends there we can stay with, or if it comes to it, we’ll integrate with Dark’s people until things are better. He might not want to get involved in the war, but he can’t refuse us protection.”
“War,” she repeated softly.
“Yes, Gram,” I said. “I’m afraid that’s what it’s come to in my world. War.”
Two days later, we were finally ready to go. I had met our drivers (Levi and Thalia) on the road halfway to Gram’s, and was helping them load the car. I was surprised by the arrival of a seventh person, accompanied by a chirpy, “Hey!”
It was Holly Starbuck, of course. Who else would it be?
And she was wearing a traveling backpack. I prayed that didn’t mean what I thought it meant.
“Hello,” she replied. “Now, where do I put my stuff?”
“Oh no,” was my response. “You’re not going.”
“Of course I’m going!”
“Holly, you have school. And family and stuff. Isn’t your cousin pregnant?”
“Oh, yeah, that,” she shrugged. “I plan to be back before then. Besides, didn’t I tell you? Aunt June wants to send me to live with my grandparents for a month.”
“Oh, y’know. The gay thing.”
“You came out?” Holly had told me weeks ago, but until now, I’d thought I was the only one who knew she was a lesbian.
“Kinda had to. She saw my personal emails from Olive. So, it sucked that I had to break up with my girlfriend and get outed to Aunt June in the same email, but life’s tough sometimes.”
“You broke up with Olive?"
“It was never going to work, not at that distance, and not with running the site coming between us. She took that over. Hey, are you just gonna ask questions, or can you tell me where to put my stuff?”
“Why should I carry your stuff?” I exploded.
“Because I’m going with you!”
I groaned. “There’s no talking you out of this, is there?”
“Nope,” she said cheerfully.
“At least tell me you have a plan.” (Knowing Holly, she probably didn’t.)
This time, for once, she did. “Aunt June wants to send me on a bus, to Birmingham. I’ll just tell her I got another ride, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll just get off at Nashville and meet you somewhere.”
“That’s a stupid plan.”
“It’s a plan,” she pointed out.
I groaned again, which I think amused Holly. “You know what? Fine. Come with us, if you must. But I think you already know how dangerous it’s going to be.”
“You realize you are technically running away from home, right?”
“You would have done the same.”
“I do really stupid things, Holly!”
“Well, good. Now we can do stupid things together.”
There was no doubt in my mind that this idea was bad. The absolute worst. Especially as we were leaving at nine that night. But, there was just as little doubt that if Holly wanted to go to Tennessee, then she would go to Tennessee with or without my consent. Or my driving, for that matter. “Just for the record, my answer is still no.”
“I know that too.” She sobered. “Look, Hailee. Things aren’t great right now. My family is going insane, and I just can’t deal with it anymore. I need to get out, and if I’m going to get out, I want to go with you. I want to do more for you, and your people, than leak information onto a two-bit website from behind a cheap laptop.”
“That did so much for us,” I objected.
“True,” she said, “but I want to do more.” With that, she swung her bag into the back bed of Levi’s truck. “Okay?”
There was no point in even groaning. “Okay. Sure.”
She smiled childishly. “Yay!”
It’s really hard to love her sometimes. But even then, I can’t help it.
She ran off, to return to her house or call her aunt or something. I went the other way, back to Gram’s to collect the last things I needed. The digital clock read six when I walked into the kitchen. Three hours. It took me one of those. Gram was taking her midevening nap, and so the house was left eerily silent.
The sky was turning sulfury yellow when I finally hauled the last of everything into the truck bed. Levi insisted on driving back to Vicar’s Lot, saying it would be “less conspicuous” if we left that way, but really, I think he was just prematurely homesick. I know I was getting that way. Wiping sweat from my bangs, I stopped on the front porch, leaning against the rail. “Well,” I said, “time to say goodbye to this old place.”
Fred was beside me, also leaning against the rail. He had a habit of inviting himself into places: houses, rooms inside houses, front porches outside houses. “We’ll come back someday,” he said. “I feel it in my gut. We’ll be back.”
Yes, but it might not be for years. I kept that thought to myself, though I felt I should say something. Fred and I were going separately. He and Levi were going to lay low and gather information on Nashville’s hunters (there were sure to be some), while I met with Adam Dark. We might not see each other again for days, weeks even -- with one egregious exception, the longest time we’d ever been apart since our childhood days.
He looked suddenly serious, deathly serious. “You need to get through this.”
“Of course I do, Fred. I know that. I have to get through this for you.”
“No, Hailee.” He shook his head, and that was when I noticed his hand had been touching mine this whole time. “I mean, I need you to get through this. I...I need you.”
That was when he kissed me for the first time.
It was so unexpected it made my knees buckle. It wasn’t like in the movies, when you can see the guy leaning in and the girl closing her eyes and whatever they do. One second, we were talking, I was wondering if the question what do you mean you need me even bore asking, and the next his lips were on mine, so close I could see every strand of his auburn hair.
And a second after that, I was looking at his whole face again, his hand moved away, his eyes filled with something that resembled shock, and I wanted nothing more than to have him back. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have done that. I shouldn’t,” he stammered, looking extremely flustered.
“Fredrick! It’s okay. Really, it’s okay,” I tried to reassure him.
He blushed. “I, uh, I’m g-gonna go now. Things need doing. Somewhere. Probably.”
Only when he was gone did it occur to me I was blushing too. But I was also smiling, and I think they counteracted each other.