“I will let you know if anything changes,” Charlie promised. “Take care of yourself, Kian.”
With the phone pressed against my ear, I squeezed my eyes shut and dragged in a deep breath. “Thanks, I appreciate it.” I ended the call then slipped my phone inside my jacket pocket.
Any day now. It could be today, or maybe tomorrow, I knew that the next time Mrs. B’s son Charlie called, it would be to relay some bad news.
With the weight of the world weighing heavily on my mind, I slumped against my steering wheel, resting my forehead against the toughened leather. It was eight-thirty on a Monday morning. Classes were due to start at eight-fifty. If it wasn’t for the promise of a scholarship, I would’ve opted to stay at home with Jaxton. His parents had been nothing but supportive to me during the last two weeks, putting a roof over my head, and setting a place for me at their dinner table. Their extended family: the biker clan had been a godsend to me too, keeping my mind occupied by teaching me card games, offering me friendly words of advice, or just listening to me whenever I needed to vent. I fully appreciated what this was; it was a community, one big supportive family who had each other’s backs no matter what. My fortnight’s grace had run its course, and now I had to face going back to school.
I decided to drive past my old place on the way.
𝑊ℎ𝑦? 𝐵𝑒𝑐𝑎𝑢𝑠𝑒 𝐼’𝑚 𝑎 𝑠𝑢𝑐𝑘𝑒𝑟 𝑓𝑜𝑟 𝑝𝑢𝑛𝑖𝑠ℎ𝑚𝑒𝑛𝑡, 𝑡ℎ𝑎𝑡’𝑠 𝑤ℎ𝑦.
I should have kept going when I saw the black Mercedes parked where Dad’s ranger’s Jeep used to be, but I didn’t. I crawled past slowly and parked straight in front of Mrs. B’s old place. My stomach almost dropped through my ass, wondering what the fuck the reaper’s men were doing sniffing around my parent’s house. What did they want? We owed them nothing. And besides, even if we did, they couldn’t take what I didn’t have. I still had my pride, and it was that same pride that saw me bolting from the car and striding up to the driver’s side. The guy behind the wheel rolled down the window, giving off a whiff of cheap cologne and stale cigarette breath.
“I would like to offer my condolences for your loss; your parents were good people despite all their faults,” the wolf shifter drawled. Any wolf on the reaper’s payroll was a rogue, exiled from the pack. The guy sitting next to him was a cat shifter, but those guys were dirt poor and would do just about anything if it put food on the table.
They had no business being here, and my venomous tone made it clear that they were unwelcome. “Cut the crap, you’re not here for a social call. Why don’t you do us all a favor and get the hell off my front yard before you devalue the place.”
They exchanged amused glances, finding my cocky attitude both brave and stupid. I might not be the sharpest knife in the rack, but I could do basic math. Two against one was not good odds, and worse still, as two more wolf shifters emerged from either side of the back, I cursed whoever came up with blacked-out windows.
“The fuck is this?” I backed up, almost stumbling on the edge of the lawn.
With my chances of leaving without a scratch not looking all that good, I positioned my car key between my fingers so that I could cause some damage if need be.
“We’re here to collect a debt incurred by your late mother. That shit she pumped into her veins ain’t free, you know? Reaper is a lenient guy, and he’s willing to write that debt off as a gesture of goodwill given the circumstances,” the wolf shifter explained as if he had zero fuck’s to give.
“That shit killed her!” I exclaimed, letting my anger get the better of me. “My mother is dead, the debt dies with her. You tell him that I don’t need his goddamned charity!”
The menacing look that passed between the four men told me that they still had some unresolved business here. Why else would he send a posse of henchmen to pass on a message?
“You better watch your tongue, cub, or else one of us will be only too happy to remove it,” this time, it was the cat shifter who spoke. “You cost the reaper money as it is, quitting the cage just like that.” He snapped his fingers. “The reaper doesn’t like to lose money—no one does.”
Those of us down at the cage knew that the reaper made a whole heap of money out of our fights. He owned the underground. Most of the casinos, strip clubs, a few bars, and the cage were all just a smokescreen. Drugs, guns, and money laundering was how he made the big bucks. It was exactly the kind of lifestyle that I wanted to avoid.
“But I’m a nobody,” I defended, taking another cautious step back. “Fighters are two a penny to a guy like him; what makes me so special?”
The cat shifter’s lips stretched into a lazy grin as the driver answered. “You were born with the gracious gift of those two fists and you barely recognize your own potential. You’re making it really hard for me to feel sorry for you, son.”
I swallowed thickly. “I’m not going back down there. Do what you want,” I said, holding my arms out at my sides. “I got nothing left to lose.”
It was in that brief moment that I saw his brown eyes flash down towards Mrs. B’s ring that hung from a chain around my neck. My immediate reaction was to grasp hold of it, needing to protect it at all costs. That was my first mistake. Now they knew that it had to mean something to me, and that placed power in their hands. The second mistake was not keeping my guard up. As I said, four against one, eight fists flying in my direction outnumbered my two. Pain blasted the side of my head as a single punch sent my face sideways, followed by a clear shot in the ribs that knocked the air from my lungs. I dropped to my knees like a sack of potatoes, feeling the chain pull tightly against the back of my neck. Before I could do anything to stop it, I felt it snap. The next thing I saw was the ring dangling from the chain between the cat shifter’s fingers as he held it directly in front of my face.
“Give that back,” I wheezed before spitting out a pool of saliva.
My mouth filled up like a lake, spilling gooey strands over the edge of my lip.
“Fuck,” I groaned, choking down the bile that threatened to creep up my throat.
“You’ll be wanting this back, I presume?” One of the wolf fuckers spoke, I was too winded to figure out who. “If you want it, you’ll have to fight for it. This Saturday night, down at the cage. You’ll be playing with the big boys now, so you better take the time to prepare.”
One of them held the top of my head and pushed me to the ground, forcefully. I lay there until I caught my breath, hearing the car screech away down the street. I knew deep down that they would’ve caught up with me eventually. If the reaper wanted me to participate in a fight, he must have his reasons. He could easily get one of the other fighters to do it, but instead, he wants me. What was worse was that they were leaving me no choice but to break my promise. The one thing I swore that I would never do, and that thought was ugly.
𝐒𝐭𝐚𝐲𝐫𝐢𝐝𝐠𝐞 𝐑𝐞𝐬𝐢𝐝𝐞𝐧𝐭𝐢𝐚𝐥 𝐈𝐧𝐬𝐭𝐢𝐭𝐮𝐭𝐢𝐨𝐧
𝐆𝐢𝐚𝐧𝐧𝐚 𝐃𝐨𝐧𝐚𝐡𝐮𝐞: 𝐚𝐠𝐞 12
My heart rattled inside my chest as I paced the room, anxiously waiting for Sarah, my social worker, to open the crumpled envelope.
"Gia, for goodness sake." She chuckled. "Take a seat, you're going to wear a hole in the carpet."
"This is huge," I expressed, my words spluttering from my lips in a fluster. "I can't believe that you kept this from me all this time."
I trusted Sarah, despite me being bounced from foster home to foster home, she had been the only consistency in my life. She wasn't like the others who were full of false empathy. I could tell that she was fond of me. I had been here the longest. She got to hold me when I was barely an hour old. Sarah was always telling me that if I worked hard, I could make something of myself. My shitty situation didn't define who I was. I could be whoever I wanted to be.
"I'm sorry." Sarah's blue eyes flinched with remorse, worried that she had let me down.
Of course, she hadn't. She had already apologized more times than I could remember. Apparently, my birth mother had instructed her to withhold this letter from me until I became old enough to understand its contents. She handed me over to the authorities within moments of giving birth to me. All I knew was that she was alive and well, and I had a father out there somewhere. I often wondered if he knew about me. Sometimes I would dream about him charging through these halls like a hero sent to rescue me. He would tell me that he has been searching for me for all this time, we would hug and cry, and then he would take me home—to wherever home was, anyway.
It was difficult to formulate an image of what either of my parents looked like because I didn't have any photographs of them. All I had was a mirror and an overactive imagination. I used to spend hours staring at myself, wondering who I resembled the most. Did I get my blue eyes from my mom? Was Dad's nose short like mine? Where did I inherit my brown curly hair from? It was wild and unruly and difficult to style. Did my mom get as frustrated as I did whenever a hairband would snap? Did my dad pick the crust off his bread like me? Could he put his fingers into his mouth and whistle?
My whole world stood still as Sarah pulled out the note, and suddenly, the oatmeal I ate for breakfast started to weigh as heavy as rocks.
Sarah cleared her throat, scanning her eyes along the first sentence. I noticed her brows dimple in the middle. Any kind of frown was never a good sign. Pain filled my heart and the room grew smaller.
"Dear Gianna," Sarah read, sounding unimpressed with how my mother chose to address me.
It seemed cold and distant, nothing how I expected at all. For all these years, I held out hope that my birth mother had been forced to make a heart-breaking choice. Why hadn't she wrote 'my dearest Gianna'? Didn't she feel anything for me? She had given me life, a name, and left me with a shit-load of questions.
"I am writing this letter to explain the reason why I couldn't keep you, and for you to understand why you must never come searching for me." Sarah's eyes were tinged with sadness as they flicked to me.
Regardless of the numbing ache in my chest, I remained as still as a statue. I refused to shed a single tear. Not yet. Not until I was alone. "What else does she say?"
The regretful look on her face told me that she was having second thoughts about her decision.
"It sounds terrible, but I met your father briefly. I'm just a prissy little rich kid who got drunk one night and was knocked up at a college party. All I can tell you was that his name is Kellan Donahue, and he has an older brother called Jerry. He's roughly a year older than me, I'll take a wild guess at twenty. I wonder how old I'll be when you read this. But you'll be relieved to know that I'm not going to gross you out with the details, but nine months later, you came into the world. I never saw Kellan again after that night. He didn't go to my school. He said he was friends with the guy whose party it was, but when I asked him, he said that he had never even heard of a guy named Kellan. Your father wasn't like any other guy I had met before. He seemed different somehow, but I didn't realize how much until it was too late. I witnessed him change and was spooked out, so I ran. I knew as soon as I felt that first flutter of life in my womb, months later, that I couldn't keep you. Your kind doesn't belong in my world. Giving you up was the one thing I could do to give you a fair chance at life. It was the only way I could protect you from my father and his friends. They would never accept you because of what your father is. I hope you can find it in your heart not to hate me too much. I made the decision to bring you into this world, and I believe everything happens for a reason. Contrary to what you think of me, I don't regret my choice. For some reason, carrying Kellan's child felt right. I can't explain it." Sarah's eyes narrowed as she continued.
"I know you must have questions, but I can't give you all the answers. Although, I bet your father could. I know I'm right about him. I was drunk but I know what I saw. At the country club where my father goes to meet up with all of his golfing buddies, they talk about a secret state called: Forest Lake. You won't find it located on any maps or GPS, but if you head south from Stayridge City and head towards the mountains, you'll find what you're looking for. I heard them talking about shifters. People who have the ability to change into animals. I saw your father change into a wolf with my own eyes. Maybe you're like him, or maybe you're like me. Either way, I couldn't take that risk. I hope that you can find him, Gianna. Yours truly, Monica Vermont."
"So my mom was a crazy person," my throat tightened, making my words sound strangled. "She couldn't even bring herself to sign off as Mom. I guess that's it. It's done."
My breathing trembled, giving away my pain.
"We see lots of young girls from all walks of life, some more troubled than others," Sarah revealed. "What I saw was a desperate young woman who had the bejesus scared out of her. Drink and drugs can make you see things that aren't really there. It doesn't mean that she is crazy. She succumbed to peer pressure, that's all." She wiped a tear away that streaked down my cheek.
"So what now? Should I believe anything she said? Does a state called Forest Lake really exist? Or did she dream all that up too?" It seemed a little far fetched that my dad came from some secret state that nobody else could find. I once watched a documentary about a guy who thought he'd been abducted by aliens. Everyone thought that he sounded bat-shit crazy, too."
Sarah paused as she thought of an answer.
"We couldn't locate the whereabouts of Kellan Donahue when you were born, but perhaps if I ran a DNA search we could try to track him down that way. Maybe he's been in trouble with the law, or maybe his hospital records will flag something up," she mentioned, clutching at straws.
I released a disheartened sigh. "No, don't bother. You were right before when you said that I could turn my own life around. I'll have a family of my own someday. For all I know, my mom probably made all that up so that the rich jerk who knocked her up could keep hold of his trust fund. To hell with her, and to hell with him too."
I bolted out of the room, leaving Sarah standing there, startled. The hallway was lined with gray filing cabinets and donated office chairs. Wood shavings had been placed over a patch on the carpet where some kid had thrown up. The repugnant stench still lingered in the air. I reached the window at the end of the hall that looked out onto the patchy lawn. There was an artificial plant on the window sill that had been picked apart by some of the younger kids. I was seething mad so I took a swipe at it, sending it crashing to the floor.
Just a couple more years and I could get out of here. How could anybody learn to love a kid like me when my own parents couldn't? Heroes don't exist. No one was coming. I'm all alone.
I burst into the bathroom and slammed my back against the door, making sure that I placed the trash bin beneath the handle. We weren't allowed to have a lock on the door for safety reasons, not after one of the girls attempted to cut her wrists with the blade from a pencil sharpener.
Moments later, hurried steps thundered down the hall, followed by a loud knocking on the other side of the door.
"Gianna, open this door!" Our care worker, named Linda ordered.
She managed the place, yet she didn't much care for children.
"Go away!" I yelled, relieved to see the obstruction prevented her from entering.
I watched the handle twisting up and down to no avail. "She's done it again. I told you to remove that trash bin." I heard her bickering with one of the staff.
If it wasn't for the bars on the windows, I would've attempted to jump. The first floor didn't look that far from the ground. How far would I get, and where would I go?
𝑊ℎ𝑎𝑡 𝑖𝑓 𝐹𝑜𝑟𝑒𝑠𝑡 𝐿𝑎𝑘𝑒 𝑤𝑎𝑠 𝑎 𝑟𝑒𝑎𝑙 𝑝𝑙𝑎𝑐𝑒?
"What do you mean? It's nothing. Kian, you arrived home with blood on your shirt, do you think I was born yesterday?" Jaxton's mom, Jenna chastized, tapping her foot anxiously.
"No, ma'am," I replied, avoiding eye contact.
Jenna was scary when angered. She wore a fist full of golden rings that doubled as a set of knuckle dusters: a present from her husband, which was befitting of a biker queen.
Throttle was standing at the side of his wife with his arms folded in front of his chest. His left brow was arched above his eye like he didn't believe a word I was saying.
"Start talking, boy or my fingers will start dialing the school's number," he threatened, convinced that the incident had taken place there.
I made a promise to your poppa at his graveside, and I intend to fulfill that promise.
I didn't want any trouble. I especially didn't want to drag my problems here, not when the Archers had been so good to me. People had been riding my back about it all day at school. They believed my bullshit story but Jax's parents could smell it from a mile away.
"I play sports, shit happens," I excused, brushing it off as if it was no big deal.
"They let you play Lacrosse in your jeans?" Jenna rolled her eyes then shook her head.
That woman didn't miss a trick.
"I got all night, Kian," Throttle drawled. "You do the talkin' and I'll do the listenin'."
Jax chose to hang back in the sitting room, waiting this one out. Judging by the silence that befell the house, I knew that he was eavesdropping on us. I either answered Throttle now, or Jax would bug the crap out of me later.
"Okay, but you got to promise that you won't freak out." I looked between them, noticing their eyes bulge wide.
"Too bad because I'm already freaking the fuck out," Jenna panicked, flinging her arms in the air, dramatically.
I cringed, bearing my teeth. "I drove past my house on the way to school and ran into the Reaper Cartel."
I flinched, waiting for the explosion to happen. I just hit the detonator having mentioned the local mob boss.
"What?!" Jenna shrieked.
"What the fuck did they want? Did they lay their hands on you?" Throttle responded after his jaw practically hit the floor.
"They just gave me a small warning with their fists, just some of the usual shit," I explained, gesturing to the blood on my shirt.
One of the good things about my kind was that we healed quickly. By the time I arrived at school, there wasn't a scratch on me.
"Bastards," Jenna seethed, muttering under her breath.
Throttle scrubbed a hand over his stressed face. "What was their message?"
"That the reaper wants me to fight on Saturday," I told him.
"And you told them 'no' and they laid into you?" He asked, shrugging his shoulders.
"I said no at first, but then they took the ring that Mrs. Bennett gave to me to use as leverage. To get it back I have to take part in the fight."
"The fucker is using you instead of getting his own hands dirty. That fucking son of a bitch," Throttle growled.
"He can tell him to go to hell though, can't he?" Jenna looked to her husband, pleadingly. "The club can protect him, can't they?"
Throttle gripped the bridge of his nose as he sighed. "Baby, it's not that simple. He would need to be a part of the club to earn club protection. And even then... The reaper? That's one hell of a shit show to wriggle out of."
"Hey, if you know something then tell me," I urged.
"I swear, I didn't know that he picked you!" Throttle groaned, his face drained of all color as if he was about to throw up. "There's a rival biker gang known as the Shadow Wolves. Their president has been raising all kinds of hell down in Hawcroft, and the reaper ain't too thrilled about it. He feels there's a challenge coming on and the Alpha dog is keeping a close eye on his movements as it is. You won't see the reaper putting a toe out of line in plain sight, but an illegal fight has been scheduled to take place this Saturday night. The reaper wants that fucker dead, and he's expecting you to be the one to do it."
"I can't go through with that, man!" I raised my palms up in defense. "That's just fucking crazy! I'm not a killer!"
"I know your not, Kian. But this is the reaper we're talking about. I don't think you have a choice. It's kill or be killed." Throttle's words hit me harder than a knockout.