"Now, does everybody understand?" Our fifth-grade teacher, Miss Halloway asked, searching among the class.
"Yes, miss," we all answered in unison, mumbling in an unenthusiastic drawl.
She cupped her hand around her ear, displeased by our response. "I'm sorry, what was that? Can you repeat it so I'm satisfied you've learned something."
There was huffing and groaning from some of the kids, but I remained silent. My teacher's eyes were on me the whole time and I was embarrassed about that.
"Tell an appropriate adult if someone approaches you with drugs," we all muttered out of sync.
Her green eyes held my gaze a moment longer, and I noticed the element of concern that lingered within them. The home bell startled her, giving me the chance to scamper away.
I snatched up the tatty satchel that my next-door neighbor, Mrs. Bennett gave to me last year. It had once belonged to her son, Charlie, when he was of school age, fifty-seven years ago. She was like a grandmother to me, and always made sure I had at least one decent meal every day.
I barely made it past my desk when I heard the sound of Miss Halloway's voice calling me back. "Kian Jones, could you stay behind for a minute, please?"
My heart plummeted to my stomach, which only played havoc with my anxiety. "Yes, miss," I replied, timidly clutching onto the worn shoulder strap.
She waited until all the other kids had left before perching along the edge of her desk. All the homework papers had been placed on top of one another in a messy pile. All except for mine. This was the second week in a row that I had failed to complete the assignment.
"Where's your homework for this week?" She asked, even though I could tell that she had already second-guessed my answer.
My excuse lodged in my throat, causing my voice to sound strangled. "I left it at home, miss," I lied, hating how sour it tasted in my mouth.
What else could I do? I couldn't tell her that I spent most nights cleaning up after my mom. How I struggled to drag her to her room after she passed out cold on the bathroom floor, high as a cloud on heroin. How could I even begin to explain all the times I had to clean her up after she threw up over herself, almost choking on her own vomit, or how she had pissed herself at the same time.
Miss Halloway sighed, then bunched her long brown hair over one shoulder before folding her arms in front of her chest.
"Is everything alright at home, Kian?" Her voice was drenched with concern and I hated it.
I hated it because she was right. I hated it because when she asked me that question, scraping straight along the bone, I was scared. Fear clenched my lungs, crushing them tight. She can't know. No one could know.
"Yes, miss," I replied, my own voice trembling at this point.
Even tears threatened to swell in my eyes because I could already feel them starting to burn, then distort... Damn, too late, it was happening.
"Hey, it's alright." She edged forward and brushed her hand against my shoulder, attempting to comfort me.
My breath skipped in my throat as I snatched a gasp of air.
"You can talk to me, I'm worried about you," she said, bunching her brows.
I sniffed, wiping my nose on the edge of my sleeve. My clothes were dirty, having worn them all week. Mrs. Bennett usually let me bring laundry around to her house on a weekend. Our washing machine had given up the ghost months ago. Dad had promised to fix it but never got around to doing it. Then again, he was never around in general.
"It's just..." I hesitated, finally blinking away the moisture in order to meet her gaze.
"Go on," she encouraged, prompting me in her gentle tone.
Why couldn't Mom be more like her?
Spooked from almost admitting what was happening out loud, I ran from the classroom, grimacing with tears. I made it all the way across the schoolyard, carrying on running for a further two blocks before breaking down beside the entrance to the park.
The old iron gates creaked as I pushed them open, then slipped through, taking the shortcut home. My tatty sneakers nudged the leaves that covered the footpath in shades of red, brown, and orange. Autumn was on its way, and with it brought a brisk, chilly breeze. I shuddered, feeling the cold raise the hairs on my body. Usually, shifters could brave the elements, unaffected by the weather, but not me. I was malnourished and exhausted through sleep deprivation.
I tensed at the sight of Dad's ranger Jeep turning the corner of our street. I raced it home, unable to stop the sickening dread from consuming me. If he walked in on Mom shooting up a hit, the shit would hit the fan. Handling my drugged up mother was one thing, calming down my alcoholic father was another. Especially if Mom had spent all our money on drugs. On more than one occasion, he came home to a trashed house. If Mom accumulated debt, then the dealers would take whatever valuables we had.
Part of me didn't blame my dad for turning to drink, and then again, part of me did. If only he was as strong-willed as he was physical, then he could beat whatever demons haunted him. Then he could find the strength to help Mom. But instead, they would rather destroy one another. I hated being caught in the crossfire, but I was unable to choose between them. If I was strong enough, I would walk away and never look back.
How far would I get on my own, at ten years old and where would I go?
By the time I arrived home in a thundering of footsteps and my chest heaving for air, I could already hear them screaming. The sound of glass shattering made me flinch and I paused at the edge of the yard, knowing the chaos that awaited me.
"Kian, honey," Mrs. Bennett beckoned me next door. "Come sit with me for a while."
She stood inside the open door of her rundown shack. Our side of town wasn't pretty, but those of us here made the best of what little we had.
Mrs. Bennett wrapped the over-sized knitted cardigan around her frail body, then stood aside in her slippers. She wore the same ankle-length skirts and baggy blouses that she always wore and had done for the past however many years.
I glanced towards the house and swallowed hard. The perspiration that coated my skin turned cold rather quickly. It was either venture inside the mouth of Hell or seek sanctuary with my kind-hearted savior.
"Thank you," I replied, gratefully.
The heat from the flames licked my skin as I sat in the threadbare armchair beside the fire. Tremors shook my limbs as I reached out to take the mug of cocoa that was being held out in offering.
"This should do the trick," Mrs. Bennett muttered. "Get it down you, son, you look as if you've had one heck of a day."
I blew the dark liquid before taking a sip. The intense temperature scorched my upper lip but I didn't so much as flinch. Instead, I savored the bitter, velvety taste like I did whenever I was given such luxury.
"Well? A problem shared is a problem halved," she said, observing my reaction with worldly wise eyes.
It was easier to open up to her. Here in her cozy little sitting room, along with the decade's old furniture that had lived through the best of their days, I felt somewhat safe. I knew that Mrs. Bennett would rather let me sleep here on her patched up couch than call the authorities. Bear Creek had its own way of handling wayward shifters, and I didn't want my parents to face bear justice or end up exiled. Nor did I want to be dragged off to the kids home down in the neighboring town of Hawcroft.
Forest Lake was a state exclusive to shifters and the occasional human mate, but where children were concerned, we had a similar system as the humans. I just didn't want to wind up stuck in it. I'd be eighteen by the time I could walk out of my own accord, and who would take care of Mom in the meantime? Dad? Nah, somehow, I doubt it.
"My teacher knows that something's wrong at home," I confided.
She exhaled heavily as she sank into the chair opposite me. "And she told you as much, did she?" Mrs. Bennett commented, cradling her own mug of Cocoa.
As I nodded, a worried frown formed across my brow.
"This can't go on forever, Kian. Folks were bound to find out sooner or later," she spoke gently, airing out the truth.
It seemed so final coming from her lips, which wasn't much comfort at all.
"Can I live here, with you?" I asked, clinging on to a shred of hope.
The corners of her wise old eyes crinkled as she smiled. "I'm almost eighty-five and we're not blood-related. The council would flat-out reject it." She shrugged, stating what I already knew deep down. "But then, they would have to prise you from my withered fingers before I'd hand you over to them." She gave a hearty chuckle, throwing her head back.
"What's the worst they could do to me at my age? Force me into the pit to face bear justice?" Her eyes met mine and I saw an inner glint of defiance within them.
A genuine smile stretched my lips and I took another sip of my cocoa, feeling the knotting ball of anxiety begin to dissipate.
"You are such a wonderful boy, Kian, don't ever let the misfortunes of life hold you back. Everything you have ever wished for is right there for the taking. You just have to want it badly enough." Her words struck a chord inside of me and it was at that moment that I made a promise. One that I vowed, I would carry with me until my last breath on this earth.
"One day, I'm gonna make you proud of me. You'll see. I'm gonna try real hard and make something of myself. Then I can take good care of you, and Mom, and Dad too. I'll take care of everything, I promise."
Mrs. Bennett chuckled, swiping the pad of her finger under her eyes. "You're a good boy," she spoke with benevolence. "How about I fix you some dinner, then we'll go take a look at the situation next door?"
I nodded. "Yes, ma'am."
I read through one of Charlie's books while waiting for dinner to cook. The mouthwatering scent of fried bacon wafted past my nose, causing my mouth to salivate. A little while later, she brought in a plate full of waffles, bacon, and eggs.
"Say when," she urged as she poured lashings of maple syrup over the top.
I giggled, in the hope that shed keep it coming. "Kian, that's plenty," she advised, making a 'tsk' noise as she shook her head in amusement.
My hands shook as I picked up the cutlery and began cutting up the food. That first morsel to hit my empty stomach felt like a brick landing onto concrete, plummeting with a forceful smash. Hunger pains twisted my insides, forcing me to eat slower, taking my time to alleviate the discomfort.
"Did you eat any lunch today?" Mrs. Bennett asked, noticing me squirm.
"Mom forgot to buy groceries," I told her, offering a half-truth.
Mom never stocked the kitchen with groceries. She would usually send me to the store with a few dollar bills and that was how we ate most nights.
"And I bet you don't have much time for breakfast either, do you?" She asked, in a way that suggested she knew the truth. That there was no breakfast, and that I'd go all day without anything to eat.
"That's no good at all," she muttered, sounding irked. "Going hungry like that. I want you to call here on your way to school. I'll make you some breakfast and pack you some lunch."
I don't know what I ever did to deserve a kind old lady like Mrs. Bennett looking out for me the way she did. But if it wasn't for her, I don't know how much longer I could've survived. She was my guardian angel, and I thanked the heavens for sending her to me.
After dinner, I helped to wash up the dishes. I was nervous about going home as well as nervous about school tomorrow. The second I knew it was time to leave, all my anxiety came flooding straight back.
The yellow glow of the hall light shone through the half circle pain of glass at the top of the door. Mrs. Bennett knocked firmly, then placed her hands on top of my shoulders while we waited for an answer.
Footsteps shuffled from somewhere within the house, then the door was ripped open abruptly. My father stood there with a cigarette in his mouth, his hair wild and unruly as if he hadn't combed it in days.
His eyes flashed from Mrs. Bennett, down to me. "Boy, have you been bothering Mrs. Bennett?" He asked, his gruff, accusatory tone was clipped and abrasive.
As I shook my head vigorously, Mrs. Bennett answered for me. "No, quite the contrary. This charming young man has been keeping me company."
The tip of Dad's cigarette glowed orange as he took a deep drag, eyeing her with a cocked eyebrow. He made a 'Hmph' sound, scoffing at the 'charming' comment as if he found that unlikely.
A small stab of hurt pierced my heart at that. Why was it so hard for him to believe that there was good in me? Wasn't he proud to have raised such a decent son like me? Wasn't I good enough?
Mrs. Bennett gave my shoulders a reassuring squeeze and then she patted me. "Off you go, get a good night's rest and I'll see you bright and early tomorrow morning."
I twisted around to face her. "Thank you for dinner, Mrs. Bennett. Good night."
She flashed a warm smile, then gave a stern glare in acknowledgment of my dad. That cheered me up, knowing she wasn't intimidated by him. Most people were. Especially with the fierce reputation he carried around. As well as fulfilling his ranger duties, Dad was well known in the underground for all the illegal fights he took part in. He missed his last shot at defending his cage fighting title, all because he couldn't lay off the booze. Now the illegal fights are all he had left.
They nicknamed him 'Razor' because his teeth can cut through fur and flesh like butter. I remember the one time he brought me along, saying that I needed to toughen up and learn to be a man. All eyes watched me that night. Corrupt, greedy eyes from out of the pits of Forest Lake's underworld. Those guys stayed beneath the radar of the council. They even managed to evade the clutches of the Alpha wolf, the five-century-old lycan, Alec White. They were the type of criminals that could wipe you out in the blink of an eye, and not even your own momma could sniff out where they buried your body.
Those were the wrong kind of people. Worse still, those same nasty people all wanted a piece of me, 'the son of Razor'. Whatever promise they thought I possessed, they were wrong. I would never take a single step inside my daddy's shoes. I was gonna be somebody. I wanted good grades and then a shot at a scholarship. Then from there, I wanted to land me a job in the construction industry because that was where Bear Creek accumulated all of its wealth. I would build a house for me and my mate, and we would live happily ever after. Mrs. Bennett, Mom, and Dad would all be taken care of because I would earn enough money to get us by and then some.
See, I had it all figured out.