Waking up and not remembering what just happened to you is pretty awful. It’s terribly uncomfortable, and downright disconcerting.
But, waking up not knowing what happened to you, and realizing you’re in the back of a vehicle is even worse.
Not just confusing, but terrifying.
Especially when you’re locked up with a bunch of children.
My heart bucked in my chest as the thought hit me again, really sinking in this time.
As I looked around me I realized that, yes, this truck didn’t just house me, but dozens of children.
All of them huddled together in clumps. Hugging their knees or laying on their side. Looking like they'd been in here for a while. Long enough that their faces were grimy. The light that hung in the trailer made them look gaunt. Spooky.
“Hey, lady, are you awake?”
Looking to my right, I noticed there was a small girl sitting there. Crouched, as if she were hiding.
“Yeah, hey, what’s going on? Is everyone okay?” I asked, my thoughts wading through the confusion, attempting to find information to keep me afloat.
She nodded. “Yeah, it’s just moving day. What’re you doing here? You should already be there, you know? You’re too old to be with us pups.”
“I-I don’t know, really. I was walking down the street, and then there was that guy who jumped out. The guy with big ears on his head,” I said, the memory coming back to me so slowly, like a ship coming in from the fog. “I… hmm. I heard them shout to stop him. And then… he—he bit me.”
The revelation was shocking. My mind went into immediate disbelief.
He couldn’t have bit me, right? That’s way too weird.
Feeling my shoulder, I caught ahold of the proof.
In my shoulder was a gash. Craning and straining both my neck and eyes, I saw that there was a bite mark there. Very minute, but still.
A bite mark.
“What the…” I was about to say “hell” but then I remembered there were kids sitting all around me. I couldn't find a replacement word on time though, and the sentence dangled, unfinished.
“Are you okay lady?” the little girl asked.
I nodded. “Yeah, I’ll be alright. I’m Jaelyn--but you can call me Jay.”
“Good. Cool. So, Wren, how long have you been in this truck?”
Looking down at the floor between us, it seemed to me that she was trying to hide some tears. “Three days.”
“Three days? What in the world…” my brain was reeling. If I had been standing, I’d have fallen over. It struck me to ask,“How long have I been in this truck?”
She shrugged. “Five hours, I think? I haven’t been out in a while, so I haven’t seen the moon or the sun in hours, so I haven’t been able to check.”
“Right, yeah, okay, no worries,” I said quickly, thinking. “Do you have any idea where we’re going?” I asked.
“To Vuk’s Academy, of course!”
“Right, yeah,” I said, matching her tone, as if that were something I would naturally know. “What is that?”
She gave me a head tilt—which was so adorable I nearly “ahh”ed out loud. “The academy? It’s where we all go. To grow up. And get jobs.”
“To grow up and get jobs, eh?” What kind of sick psychos had kidnapped us? And why in the world did it sound like this little girl thought being kidnapped was normal?
“I hear it’s scary.”
The voice didn’t belong to Wren.
It belonged to a little boy.
Sitting against the other side of the truck, the little boy with hair like new moon nights got up and walked over to us. Plopping down rather unceremoniously on my left side.
“Vuk’s is scary. The teachers are mean, and you get whipped all the time. Or electrocuted,” he told us.
Wren cowered a little lower, hunkering down into the safety of herself.
Instinctively, I put my arm around her. Part of me was surprised that she immediately huddled into my side, but, then again, I was probably the closest thing to comfort she’d had in at least three days.
Turning to the little boy, I voiced the first question on my mind.
“What do you mean?”
“They make you wear shock collars, like humans do with dogs,” he informed me, his tone factual, but his face dire. He made a motion around his neck that looked an awful lot like strangling, but I presumed he was trying to mime out the collar. “The teachers don’t like the new students for a long time. My big brother came home for a visit once and he told me to be careful. Act nice. Or they’ll shock you until you graduate.”
Without meaning to, my teeth clicked together inside my mouth. I unclenched them a moment later, another question filling my mouth.
“When’s graduation then?” I asked.
“Eighteen. Well, the spring after you’re eighteen, really.”
“So you’ll all be subjected to torture on the whims of your teachers until you turn eighteen?” I reasoned.
I was appalled, and rightfully so.
These two kids couldn’t have been older than six. And, clearly, there was some weird cult thing that their families were a part of. A weird ritual that these kids were being sold—or simply thrown—into.
For them to know that this was their fate…
It was gut-wrenching.
“Don’t talk like that Stuart!” Wren called from my side. “You’re being scary.”
“It’s true, Wren. I’m just trying to help you,” he replied, his face pained.
This situation was getting heavier and heavier by the minute…
Seeing Stuart’s pain triggered my instincts again. I reached out and tucked him into my side as well.
He seemed a little reluctant for a moment, but then sunk into me like Wren had.
“No one’s getting shocked. I’ll get us out of here. I’ll think of something,” I said.
“You can’t,” Stuart mumbled. “They’ll kill us if we try to escape. Or they’ll bring us back and make things worse. Vampires are awful like that.”
I was following him up until that last sentence.
That single word really threw me for a loop.
“What?” I asked.
But Stuart was unable to answer.
Our vehicle stopped with a lurch, causing all the kids to fret for a moment. All of them were displaced for a beat, scrambling to keep upright or not fall over.
In the end, they huddled back together as the doors to the trailer swung open.
Swung open for a big reveal.
Bathed in moonlight was a man.
A man in a uniform.
He looked like some sort of security guard. His black coat was all done up with buttons that were shiny brass and boasted of no-nonsense. His belt and black trousers spoke the same language, as did his boots and the gear on his belt.
From what I could tell, this guy was toting the works:
Pepper spray, a stun gun, an asp, a walkie-talkie, and two different pistols. One looked simple, sleek and black and shiny. The other looked more complex, strange and metallic gray. As I noticed that it had a sight on it, another memory came back to me.
The weird gun, the metallic looking one with the sight?
It had darts.
When that guy stopped and bit me, I kicked him, and he’d flown back a few feet.
I remembered now. That ship coming to port was breaking through the fog fast.
His stunned face, his black hair with white streaks, his yellow eyes.
He was completely shocked.
And then something had appeared, embedded in his neck. A tiny pop noise and a zipping sound, then there was a dart stuck in his neck. A red floofy feather fluttering around the end of it, starkly contrasting his dark appearance.
Instantaneously, his eyes had rolled back, and he collapsed backward. Lying still on the ground.
That was when I had started to get up. When I figured my understanding was, somehow, even less than I’d thought. Obviously something strange was going on. Something I had no business being a part of. Something I probably didn’t want to be part of. Clearly, I was outmatched, and I needed to get going before I was dragged into the situation. I remember thinking that.
But, as I turned, I saw the gun. Shining in the street's lamppost. It was the same gun that sat on this guy's hip, inside his holster.
And, in that moment, that gun was pointed at me.
I remember hearing the pop sound again, and the zip that followed after.
Pulling the dart from my neck did nothing, it was far too late.
And then I’d woken up in the back of the truck.
But my revelations did me no good, because none of that info was really helpful. The only thing I could use to my advantage was the knowledge that this man was armed with both sleep darts and live ammunition.
Which, really, only stunted my courage.
Just a bit.
“Alright mutts, out of the vehicle. We’re calling off names,” he shouted.
Nearly trembling, all the children filed out. Even Wren. They hopped out, bunching up like scared sheep, until the last remained.
Only two people were left in the back of the truck.
“Oi, you mutts in the back, get the hell out here,” the guard-looking dude called.
Looking at me for assurance, I saw the fear in Stuart’s eyes now. The way they shrunk, panicked and uncertain.
Clearly, he’d been holding it in for Wren. Doing his best to be brave so she didn’t have to be. But, with the dragon’s maw facing his way, he couldn’t hold it in anymore.
And how unfair.
I didn't know what awaited us outside the truck, but I knew it wouldn’t be good if Stuart resisted. If I encouraged him to be bold, to resist, something awful would happen to him, and I’d already promised him that I wouldn’t let them torture him.
So, with Stuart’s unsure gaze locked onto me, I gave the most minute of nods.
Stuart got up, limbs shaky, and began climbing out of the truck.
Knowing I couldn’t leave him alone, I followed immediately after. No more than a step behind him.
We were shuffling out, readying to jump down to the ground, when Stuart stumbled.
Right before his jump out of the truck, he got nervous, I think. Or maybe it was because he’d been crammed into a truck for some extended period of time. Either way, when he tried to jump, he couldn’t. His knees kind of buckled. Kicked in when they should’ve extended out. And he nearly toppled out of the truck.
He’d have hit the rocks on the ground face-first if it weren’t for me standing right behind him.
I caught him. One of my arms slinging around his waist like a restraint .
“Easy,” I said, in a hushed tone.
The words “let me help you down” were on the tip of my tongue, but they were cut off.
The guard grabbed Stuart.
And threw him to the ground.
He hit the rocky soil with a solid thump. So solid that I felt it in my shoes.
And Stuart's reaction?
Stuart’s shocked face retreating from me was acid to my eyes, but then, the look of pain and fear he had when he hit the ground?
There wasn’t even a moment for me to think. For me to filter out “do’s” and “don’t’s” in this situation. Rage ripped through me like a hacksaw, quick and sure and tearing, and then there was only one thing:
Leaping out of the truck, I gave the guard what he deserved.
A flying heel kick that landed squarely on his jaw.
As the man flew backward, I landed softly on the ground. Agilely. Just like how Mom taught me. And then, when I was on the ground, I bent over and checked on Stuart.
“You okay?” I asked him.
Eyes wide, he nodded. Clearly, he was still terrified. Or shocked. Or both.
Seeing that fear again triggered me. The anger that powered my kick ripped into me a second time.
Turning, I found the guard was up on his feet.
So I got up on my feet too.
“You bastard,” I growled out. “He’s just a kid. Just a kid! And he was having trouble for crying out loud! Where the hell were you raised? The seventh circle?”
The guard’s eyes narrowed, fueled with something that reeked of vileness. It was as if he weren't accustomed to being questioned.
“Listen you mutt bitch, I’m in charge here. I don’t know which academy you limped away from, but you’re mistaken if you think you’ll be allowed another relocation. I’ll kill you first,” he spat.
Before I could ask what the hell he meant, he carried on, tone dripping like lava down a mountainside.
“Get on your knees now bitch, and lick my boots as an apology,” the man sneered.
My face twisted in a snarl, my own outrage, and disgust, twisting my features as well as my gut.
“Lick your boots? You lick mine, you dumb dickhead. You’re the one assaulting children out in the middle of the woods.”
Though I don't think it was an untruthful statement, it would've been wiser to keep most of that to myself.
The guard brought up something I hadn’t seen before.
And, as I did see it, it was too late.
It lashed out, striking me across the cheek.
I went reeling.
First and foremost at my attention was the burning sensation on my face. The assurance that this guy had struck gold, that I was bleeding, was evident in the way my face ached, burned, and smoldered. And then came the force of it, knocking my head to the side.
It wasn't a pleasant feeling. It was painful, wild in a way that only fighting can be.
I wasn't in control anymore. That's what the pain, and the jerking sensation in my neck, and the blood draining out of my cheek meant.
It took everything in me to bring myself to the present, to not allow my body to go into shock.
Immediately, I righted myself. Picking my head up to face my attacker again.
When I did, his whip was already in motion. Rough leather was sailing through the air, whistling my way.
Luckily, I had just enough time to cover my face.
Bringing up my hands was futile though. He wasn’t aiming for my face at all this time.
The leather of the whip bit deep into my shirt, creating a gash of blood that oozed from the new tear in my clothes, right on my shoulder. The stinging pain lanced through my body just a moment later, agonizing for such a simple weapon.
But still, I refused to back down.
“Apologize before this gets ugly,” the guard snarled.
I knew I should, just for my own sake. I still thought he was a dickhead, and a psycho, but still, I knew I ought to give up. Put an end to the moment and my agony.
I couldn’t bring myself to do it.
It just didn't feel right.
So I stood taller, unafraid of that festering slime of a man.
“You first,” I told him.
The whip moved again.
This time, it bit into my leg. It coiled around me like a snake, slashing all the way around in an unfinished ring. A coil-like pattern to it.
The pain this time was so severe that I couldn’t help myself.
I went to the ground.
Agony tore through all my muscles. My leg felt worse than the time I really pushed myself and ran an extra five miles without a break. Like my muscles were attacking each other. Ripping each other to pieces.
But still, I wasn’t giving up.
Sitting up, back straight, I spat at his boots. At his offer to cease and desist. At everything he was.
I wanted it to be clear.
I wasn’t going to apologize to this scumbag.
At his renewed outrage, I smirked.
“That’s what you wanted, right? My spit on your boots. There you go, bud."
Now there was some real fury in his eyes. A real fire in his veins. His eyes bulged, irises nearly bleeding black with hate. His free hand twitched, as if he ached to pull the revolver from its holster. I could imagine what he'd do with it. Probably, he'd empty the whole magazine in me, if he could.
But, for whatever reason, he didn't do that.
And, somehow, we both knew it.
Regardless, it looked like he’d try his damnedest with what he could do. Which, clearly, involved the whip.
As he brought it up, I decided not to flinch this time. To prove that I didn’t care. That it didn’t matter where he hit me, because it just didn’t matter to me.
There was no way in hell that I was going to let this guy break me.
As the whip came down, I was pleasantly surprised.
It didn’t hurt me.
When I realized why, that pleasant feeling went away.
Sitting in between the guard and I was a guy. A guy who was, probably, around my age.
And he had the whip wrapped around his hands.
What I’d just done seemed like nothing all of a sudden. Actually, I kind of felt like an idiot.
Why hadn’t I tried to grab for the whip?
Laaaaaaaame, I thought to myself, about myself.
The boy in front of me stopped crouching and stood.
And then I saw the guard’s expression.
I was taken aback.
The guard's eyes widened, as if he'd been hit by a taster. He actually managed to look cowed, like a kid caught in front of a tv after their parents had gone to bed. Shock registered, and then, just the slightest bit of, dare I say, fear.
You'd think I would be done being shocked by now, but, this new development blew me away again.
Something about this boy had halted the dude’s royal Rage Against the Me.
And that brought up all kinds of questions.
Questions that would have to wait until later.
“I apologize,” the boy gripping the whip said as he untangled it from his hand. “This new wolf is my responsibility. In the future, I’m sure she’ll be less abrasive. However, should this punishment continue, I’m sure it will need to be reported to the Head Master. As a representative of the Wolf Council, I will be forced to be the one to report.”
So, this kid was, like, part of some checks-and-balances type of deal for the guards?
None of the rest of the stuff he was saying made a lick of sense to me, but that seemed fairly palpable.
When the guard backed down, I suspected I was right.
“No need for that, I’m sure she’s learned her lesson. And,” his voice rose suddenly. “LET THAT BE A LESSON TO ALL YOU PUPS. DISRESPECT IS MET WITH SWIFT AND IMMEDIATE PUNISHMENT. IS THAT CLEAR?”
The kids, still too young to be able to speak as one, made different sounds of agreement.
Good, I thought to myself. If I accidentally influence him to be a rebel rouser, I won’t be able to keep my promise to him and Wren. Or live with myself.
I didn't want either of them earning a guard's wrath, especially not if it looked like this.
Speaking of the kids, Wren was…
Ah, in line.
Doing a fair deal better than Stuart or myself. Not injured, and not part of being the center of everyone’s focus. Not part of the shit-show I’d started.
Part of survival was knowing when to fly under the radar. Spotlight, especially during the wrong show or with the wrong crowd, often just marks you as a target.
Which I’d done so magnificently already.
And I hadn’t even been here five minutes.
Boy would Mom be disappointed… I thought, a bit sardonically, to myself.
As the guard walked away, I turned to Stuart.
“You alright?” I asked again.
He nodded. “Are you okay?” he asked, eyes wide with concern.
So sweet, I thought.
What a cute kid.
I grinned at him. “I’m fine. They’re just scratches. No biggie.” The smile dropped from my face as I gave him a more serious expression. “I’d get in line though, and don’t back-sass like I just did, alright? Do what they say for now. I’ll come find you later, alright?”
He nodded affirmatively. “Okay, if you say so Jay.”
I nodded back.
I hadn’t given him my name…
Ah, but, then again, when we were in the truck, he’d joined our conversation via eavesdropping. So, more than likely, he’d heard me say my name, right?
Come to think of it though, it was loud in the truck. Like, really loud. Everyone else was murmuring, too, just like we had been. Not to mention we'd been on the move, so the truck was making all kinds of truck-in-motion sounds.
That kid must have great hearing.
As Stuart departed to get into the haphazardly formed line the kids had jumbled themselves into, I found myself face to face with a new situation.
The boy who’d taken the whip for me.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” he asked me, voice hushed.
I nodded. “Fine, just bleeding is all." Pain wasn't important, right? "What is this place? What’s going on? And what’s with all that wolf nonsense you were spouting? And Stuart said something about... vampires?”
His head tilted to the side, much like how Wren’s had. “You mean, you don’t know where you are? What’s going on?”
“Not a clue."
He made a thoughtful face. “Well, I suppose it’s true. They didn’t tell me we were getting a transfer student, and you’re much too old to be a new student. Are you sure you really don’t know what’s going on?”
“Absolutely positive,” I replied fervently.
His face pinched. “Then, you’re not a werewolf?”
My brain blanked out, as if it were an open document on a computer forcing a reboot.
“I’m sorry, I’m not a what-now?”
I shook my head. “I’m sorry, but, who’s a werewolf? I mean, isn’t that super... I don’t know, eighteenth century or something? Werewolves don’t exist.”
Even in the dimly lit night, I could clearly see his expression.
The boy in front of me paled.
“What?” I asked.
His voice dipped lower than before. “You’re not… I mean… you can’t be… a human, are you?”
I was sure my confusion was plain to see as I said, “Aren’t we all?” And, as the boy slowly shook his head, I began to accept what I'd been denying this whole time. The terrifying truth of my situation.
I was way, way out of my depth here.
Way out in the wilderness.