My eyes focused on my reflection in the grubby mottled mirror, ignoring the dark clumps of hair that fell to the floor like feathers from a plucked turkey. The noisy vibration absorbed through my skull each time Lexi dragged the clippers over my scalp.
When she was done, I ran my hand over the millimeter-long stubble, feeling the coarse texture against my palm. The boy staring back at me was skinny and gaunt, like some sick kid in the hospital that only had months left to live.
"You look bad-ass," Lexi complimented.
I eyed her with intrigue, trying to work her out as best as I could.
"Thanks," I replied, unsure how best to respond to her comment.
She met my gaze in the mirror and smirked. "What?" She pressed me for an answer, seeming wise to my silent analysis. "Just come out and say whatever it is that you want to say, little bear. Don't be shy because it doesn't suit you." She placed a hand on her cocked out hip, delivering a bucket-load of sass.
"Little bear?" I scrunched my face, highly offended. "Thanks a lot," I muttered, rolling my eyes.
She chuckled, squeezing both of my shoulders and shaking them gently. "If you don't like that, then you gotta choose a cage name," she chorused, playfully.
I dusted the itchy strands of hair from the back of my neck. "Just call me Kian. I don't want a stupid nickname," I growled, moodily.
She raised her brows, her face lighting up with amusement. "I like you." She wagged her finger at me. "So tell me. What were you thinking about just then? You know us wolves can smell a lie, right?" Her glossy red lips curled up over her teeth in a shit-eating grin.
So, Lexi was a wolf, huh? That explains the 'little bear' mockery. My kind would've referred to me as a cub, the same as the kids in the fox and the cat community. A young wolf is referred to as a pup. It was only members of the wolf community that liked to poke fun with comments like that.
Lexi had a likability about her that made our conversation flow easily. I decided to come clean with my thoughts, knowing that she would call me out on any bullshit if the tables were turned.
"You seem nice enough," I admitted. "You dress like the other girls here, but you don't act the same way." My eyes narrowed as I continued to study her expression.
I saw a flicker of truth as her pupils expanded, and the smile she held on her lips appeared too heavy as it faltered.
"You don't belong here," I continued. "You're here, either because of a bad choice you made, or because you feel obligated to that asshole, Chance. Who, by the way, doesn't deserve you," I mentioned, with a jerk of my head in his direction.
She saw the same thing as me. The way he raked his eyes over every female he passed. Her brows dimpled in the middle at that revelation, as if I was scratching too close to the bone. She swallowed hard, then licked her lips anxiously.
"You're right. He is an asshole." She rolled her eyes with a bitter edge to her voice. "But one who helps me to pay my bills and keeps the Reaper Cartel off my back."
That name ought to spark the fear of God into anyone and everyone. The Reaper was a foreign species of shifter whose kind wasn't much welcome here at Forest Lake. The guy was a reptile shifter, cold-hearted and merciless. And I'm not kidding either. He was a gator, and a big fucker too. He hid under the radar of the Alpha dog, Alec White, in the underbelly of Hawcroft. It wasn't only this place that he had a scaly hand in. It was guns, drugs, and prostitutes. His name wasn't above the door of the casinos and strip clubs, but the guys who ran those types of places were all on his payroll.
"Ain't wolves supposed to be loaded?" I asked out of sheer curiosity. Everybody talked about Stonevale as if the streets were paved with gold. There wasn't a wolf that was born there who didn't have less than a six-figure bank balance.
Lexi almost laughed out loud, rearing her head back. "Oh man, if only that were the truth." She pinched the corners of her eyes. "Nobody walks away from the Reaper Cartel unless he says so. My disobedience cost me a place in my pack. I let my beta and his mate leave town with their new-born daughter. When my Alpha found out what I had done, he almost tore out my throat. It was my aunt Agatha who got him to spare my life. He gave me a head start and I've been hiding here ever since. All my assets were frozen the second I left Stonevale. When you're flat broke and desperate, you'll agree to almost anything to keep the dog off your back." Lexi shuddered. "Trust me, The Reaper is a picnic compared to the Alpha."
I felt bad for Lexi. Finding a half-decent girl with a good heart in a place like this, was like finding a diamond in a box full of shattered glass. At first glance, they all looked the same, but when held up to the light, you could truly see their value.
"You're worth a million of the trash in this dump," I told her, figuring she could sense the integrity behind my words. "If I were you, I'd cut and run the first chance you get."
Moisture filled her eyes like lagoons. She wasn't so much sad, just too darn proud to admit that I was right. This wasn't who she wanted to be, and rightly so. The bottle blonde, slutty clothing, and heavy makeup were all a mask to hide the real version of herself. One way or another, we all hid behind a vizard to guard ourselves. Even at ten years old, I wore mine well.
"You're up next, little bear," she muttered sadly, turning her gaze away.
I locked eyes with my pal, Jaxton, who was standing over by his father, the president of the Blood Moon Bears biker gang. His nickname was Throttle. I didn't ask why. A wide grin stretched across Jaxton's face as he bounded over to me.
"Kian!" He called out, looking happy to see me.
I slid down from the stool, clearing the short distance to greet him. "You suit your hair short like that," he remarked, pointing to my scalped head. "But I don't." He gestured to himself with an indignant scowl. "I look like a boiled egg," he complained.
Jaxton's blond hair used to hang in wavy strands, reaching down to his shoulders. His momma let him grow it long so he could tie it back in a hair-band, just how his dad wore his. Now a mixture of light versus dark was being swept up from around the stools, to where it was all pushed into a shaggy pile against the wall.
"Dad says we're gonna be fighting each other in the cage," Jaxton informed, his expression downturned into something sorrowful. "I don't wanna fight you, Kian."
My heart hammered at the thought of Jaxton and me going one-on-one in the cage. Like all boys our own age, we had the occasional scuffle down at the Creek. But this wasn't the same as us goofing around. This was nothing like trying to see who could drag who into the lake or which one of us could lift the other over the shoulder, just for kicks.
Once inside the cage, you had to fight one another to the finish. Sure, Jax and I were only here to train alongside some of the other kids to see who was good enough. It wasn't as if we were expected to compete like those in my dad's league. But still, I was sure that we were expected to hurt one another enough to see who comes out on top. Jaxton was my best pal, and I was his. I would rather pull out all my own teeth than willingly land him a right hook. I could tell from the look on his face that the feeling was mutual.
"Maybe they'll just have us sparring." Jax shrugged, hoping for the best.
I nodded gingerly, "Yeah, maybe."
Dad stalked over towards us, pursued closely by Throttle. The crowd parted wide enough for them to get through without bumping shoulders with anyone.
"Boys, you're up next, " Dad informed, handing us both a gum shield. He jerked his head as a gesture that we should follow him.
Jax and I exchanged a look of apprehension, exhaling nervous breaths before trailing behind them.
The scent of blood and sweat intensified as we approached the cage. Through the rusty herringbone metal, I could make out a hulking figure pacing back and forth like a caged animal. His body glistened in a sheen of sweat, and with every deep exhale of breath, the muscles in his heaving chest expanded. My eyes were drawn towards the floor of the ring, to where an older boy around seventeen lay coughing up a mixture of blood, spit, and vomit.
"Clean it up, the kids are up next," Chance bellowed out from where he was standing at the front of the crowd.
Dad placed his hand on the base of my spine as he guided me forward. My legs weakened, quaking as if they were turning to jello. There was the sound of metal dragging across metal, clanking iron as the gate was unlocked. Two of the women hurried inside to clean up the mess, while another teenage fighter hauled the loser upright and helped him to walk out of the cage and into the washroom. I found myself at the front of a pitiful queue of trembling boys, all looking as if we were lambs lining up for the slaughterhouse.
"Don't look so terrified, boys," Throttle, chuckled.
Dad's eyes flashed down to mine. "You gotta listen to what Ricochet says. He'll be the one training you boys. You do as he says, you hear?" His deep rumbling voice meant business.
Jax and I seemed to have lost the ability of speech, opting to give a nod in acknowledgment. My tongue stuck to the roof of my dry mouth, shrinking backward as the colossal guy swaggered back the way he came.
"Step on up, boys," he beckoned the both of us forward.
Jaxton flashed his pappa a pleading look, then dropped his gaze with a defeated sigh. "You coming, Kian?" Jax mumbled, holding back so that I went first.
My stomach rolled, socking me in the gut with a fresh blast of nausea. "After you," I muttered in response, flaring my frightened eyes wide.
"Stop your dallying," Throttle forced us both forward, palming the back of our heads.
As soon as the last kid stepped through the doorway, the gate slammed shut behind us, locking us inside the cage with the intimidating shifter. He curled his finger, beckoning us to come closer.
"You're scared, " he announced, more as a statement of fact. "Good...use it."
I took another step closer, drowning in trepidation, half expecting him to land a punch on me the first chance he got.
A warped smirk curved across his lips as if he knew exactly what we were thinking. "Come on, I'm not gonna bite you. My job is to teach you boys the basics, starting from the correct way to position your body. What you saw earlier, was an advanced class," he explained, causing my brows to raise.
"You mean the semi-conscious guy across the room?" I questioned without thinking. "He was in the advanced class?" The tone of my voice matched my surprise, which seemed to humor him.
"I'm the master, he was the pupil. He's still got a way to go before he can beat me," he explained, in a manner of certainty.
I swallowed, casting Jax a fleeting look. "And what happens when he beats you?" I asked, turning my attention back on the big guy as I delivered my question.
He cocked his head to the side as he answered. "He'll be ready to compete for real. Now quit yapping and fix your gumshields. Now’s your chance to show me what you’ve got. I want to see a strong fighting stance from all of you, or else you’ll suffer one hundred push-ups on your knuckles, and that’s just for starters," he warned, staring us all down.
My feet rooted to the spot as he began to circle us, pacing the ring with observational eyes, scanning for any sign of weakness. "Your fists and shoulders should be up, with your chin and elbows down, eyes up,” he barked out the instructions.
I swallowed away the dryness as my eyes locked onto his, distrusting and cautious.
"Good," he voiced confidently. "Always keep your eyes on your opponent. Because if you don't..." He twisted his body in a sharp turn, taking a swipe at Jaxton. Jax must have watched him in his peripheral vision and managed to nimbly dodge out of his way.
"Smart move," Ricochet praised. "Now, I want you all to form pairs and face one another." He walked around us, correcting our posture. "Place your feet diagonally, a little more than shoulder-width apart and bend your knees. Your strength is here, in your core," he coached while tapping my midriff. "Better balance equals greater mobility." He began to demonstrate, using actions. "Dominant hand forward. Take sharp inhales with each shot while guarding with your free hand."
We learned how to block and dodge at school but those teachings were nothing like Ricochet’s. He taught us how to block and dodge but he also taught us how to pick our opponent's weak spot while defending our own. I knew the basic rules of self-defense but this lesson went beyond what I already knew. Ricochet had us continuously changing partners at fifteen-minute intervals, watching closely with critical eyes, analyzing our moves and footwork.
Dad's raucous praise from the side-lines inflated my confidence. It was the sort of testosterone-fuelled encouragement, typical of this kind of sport.
"Atta' boy, Kian! Keep your guard up!" Dad yelled, proudly.
An ocean of saliva had collected in my gumshield and was spilling over my lips in gooey strands. After what felt like forever, my muscles in my limbs burned, making my movements sloppy and lumbered.
"That's enough for today," Ricochet bellowed from the side of the ring. "Jones, Archer, Blake and Hawkins," he called out mine and Jax's names, along with a couple of other boys. "I'll see you, boys, next week. As for the rest of you... Better luck next year," he commiserated, unapologetically.
It felt as if the air expelled from my lungs all at once and my knees gave way beneath me. I managed to correct myself, swaying on my feet and staggered over to where my dad was waiting, his face beaming with pride. I collapsed against the rusty mesh, panting with exhaustion.
"That's my boy!" Dad boomed, rattling the mesh with his palms. "It's in your blood," he remarked, vehemently. "You're going to make it big, son. You'll see. Someday, you're going to be somebody! They'll chant your name from the crowd."
"Jeez, I hope not," I chuckled a shaky breath while trembling with fatigue.
Dad's proud grin stretched wide across his face, sparkling his eyes. "Let's go home and give your momma the good news."
Jaxton’s poppa hauled him over his shoulder in a victory spin. I watched my best buddy turn a sickly shade of pale before he was dropped to the floor, staggering his way to the club’s exit. Once outside, we said our goodbye’s and I waved as he hopped onto the back of his pa’s motorcycle. The bikers who were guarding it all revved their engines, disappearing down the road in a cloud of smoke. Throttle may have been the president of some shady biker club but those guys regarded him as their alpha. He didn’t want, nor did he need the residents of Bear Creek to respect him because nothing else mattered outside the club. They were a family who had each other's backs. They lived by their own code which worked well for them. Either way, I was glad to have them on my side as friends, rather than enemies. To them, a favor owed was a debt that had to be repaid. You honored your word if you valued your life.
Dad was pumped. I hadn’t seen him like this in... Actually, I don’t think I had ever seen him so happy—ever! The second we hopped back inside Dad’s Jeep, he switched straight into coach-mode.
”First things first, you need to gain a few pounds,” Dad explained, making suggestions about changing my diet. He muttered something about changes within our household, promising that things would be different from now on. I had no reason to doubt that he would come good on his word. Dad was determined that I followed in his footsteps but was clear to point out that he wasn’t going to let me make the same mistakes that he made. ”You’re better than that, son,” he praised, pointing out my purity. ”Just look at what booze has done to your old man.” He let out a heavy exhale. ”Alcohol just numbs the senses. It's an easy way out of having to deal with shit. It ain't your friend. It doesn't solve anything. The shit is still there waiting for you the minute you sober up.” He shot me a side glance. ”I’ll promise you this, Kian. I’ll quit drinking, starting from now.”
It was more than my dream come true to hear those words leave his lips. I almost had to pinch myself to check that I hadn’t suffered a knockout in the cage.
“And I promise that I’ll give it my best shot,” I told him, mighty glad that he was proud of me.
“I know you have your heart set on the construction industry,” he mentioned while concentrating on the road. “But there’s nothing to say that you can’t have both. You’ll be earning the big bucks, more green than you’ve ever laid your eyes on. Who’s to say that you can’t own your own construction industry someday? Money talks, son. Forest Lake is no exception to that rule. If you have wealth, you have respect. It’s the way of the world.”
Dad was always saying how he hated growing up dirt poor. He gave it his best shot but drink always got the better of him. I hated living in poverty too. Maybe Dad was right. Maybe getting good grades wasn’t enough. The rich stayed rich and the poor stayed poor. Nobody was going to give me a handout in life. Those of us who lived in the slums of Bear Creek were regarded as ‘the scumbags of society’. You didn’t see the council of elders investing any cash into our neighborhood. We were out of sight, out of mind. We didn’t get the fancy parks and picnic greens like the clean part of town did. Kids here played out on the streets, drawing over the pavements with chalk or smashing bottles at the side of the road. Those said roads weren’t maintained like the ones in town. Ours were crumbled and full of potholes.
Around the picture-perfect suburbs, they had convenience stores, bakeries, a café where people would sit outside and chat. Over at our side of town, we had one corner store that stocked the bare essentials. The shutters were permanently locked down over the windows. There was a wall of bulletproof glass separating the cash register from the customers, meaning that we had to communicate through the groove at the bottom. If you tried to pull something funny, the shopkeeper kept a double-barrel shotgun under the counter. It was always best to check your change before you left the building.
So you see, my cards were marked from the moment that I was born. I had to make something of myself the best way a kid like me could. Guys like me were constantly fighting to find our place in this superficial, fucked up world because, at the end of the day, that's all we were, the lowest level of society, the scum that taints the good streets of Bear Creek. Nobody is going to look at me any differently unless I change my own fate. I can fall victim to circumstance or I can fight my way to success. That’s what my poppa meant, so I’m going to damn well make him proud.
“Something’s happened our way by the look of it,” Dad muttered, as an ambulance and two ranger cars whizzed past us on the road.
“I wonder who that’s for?” Dad’s voice sounded grave.
“Probably another gang fight,” I replied, straining to see which way they were headed.
They turned the corner of our street, thus making Dad step on the gas pedal. “I swear, I’m gonna kill her myself if she’s gone and done something stupid,” Dad hissed, referring to Mom.
His thoughts mirrored mine: that Mom had either overdosed or her drug dealer had come over to pay her a visit. The flickering blue lights filled our street, freezing my body and flaring my eyes wide with shock. Mom was standing at the edge of the patchy lawn in her dressing gown and slippers, her hair scraped back into a messy ponytail. One of the rangers held out his palms to signal that Dad ought to stop right there. He made an abrupt stop and both of us scrambled out of the Jeep.
“What’s going on?” Dad demanded, searching over the big guy’s shoulder to where Mom was standing.
“Kian, honey,” Mom called over to me, beckoning me to come to her. “Let’s go inside.”
I knew by the worried frown on her face that something was wrong. My eyes flashed to the right of us, landing on Mrs. Bennet’s open doorway and witnessing paramedics rushing a frail figure out on a stretcher.
Air caught in my throat as I struggled to call out to her. “Mrs. B!” I managed a strangled cry.
I must’ve cleared the distance in a millisecond, clutching hold of her cold fingers as I followed alongside the stretcher. I was relieved to see that she was breathing because the condensation from her breath coated the inside of the oxygen mask. The way her eyes rolled around in their sockets was an indication that she was conscious.
“What happened to her?” I barely managed to contain the tears from falling freely.
“It looks like she suffered a cardiac arrest,” the paramedic pushing the stretcher mentioned. “Her son will be notified immediately. I'm afraid I can’t allow you to accompany her, but if you like, you can see her during visiting hours tomorrow,” he told me, in a sympathetic tone. “We’ll take good care of her, don’t you worry. She's going to be fine.”
I nodded, allowing her limp hand to slip through my fingers. Dad’s hand weighed heavily on my shoulder. “Let’s go inside, son. She’s in safe hands.”
“Rick, do you have a moment? I need to speak with you,” the ranger who stopped us spoke to Dad. "It's important."
Dad flashed his eyes down to me, then back to him. “Sure, Jack.” Dad jerked his head towards our house. “Go on, Kian. Your mother will fix you some dinner.” Dad raised his brows at Mom in a serious glower. Mom swallowed, fidgeting nervously as if she was worried about what the ranger was likely to say.
I stopped and turned to look as they pushed Mrs. B’s stretcher up the ramp of the ambulance. Mom’s fingers gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. “Come on, Kian,” she muttered in a defeated tone.
Once inside, Mom padded through to the kitchen and began heating up a frozen pizza. I loitered around in the living room, slumping down onto the couch. With my chin resting on one of the tatty sofa cushions, I peered out through the window, trying to make out what Dad and the ranger were discussing. Tears blurred my vision, stinging my weary eyes raw. The ranger named Jack placed his hands on his hips as he spoke, and Dad gripped his forehead, looking like his just cursed out loud. Then Jack pointed directly at our house and they both glanced my way. The anguish that was etched across my father’s face caused my aching heart to plummet into my stomach. I knew that look only too well. I turned away to bury my face in my hands, sinking deeper into despair, knowing that whatever bad news my father had just been given, that it would be enough to make him break his promise tonight.
Life was forever throwing me off balance, shaking the foundations under my feet. It felt as if the universe wanted me to break, to snap, to lash out against the cruel injustice that rained down on me every stinking day of my life. Rage was slowly beginning to overcome my grief, twisting my innocent soul into something dark and sinister. I didn’t know how much longer I could stay being me. And if I had to be completely honest, I wanted to be anyone else but me.