In Which I Make a Terrible Mistake
There was a lot of one-sided kissing and crying when I arrived back at Gram’s place. The other side, mine, was too preoccupied with stony silence to bother. When she finally stopped, her face suddenly became a lot more serious. “Hailee,” she said, “we need to talk.”
“About what?” I muttered, staring disinterestedly out the window. If everyone else was going to label me nothing more than a damaged, angst-ridden, hot mess of a teenager, then I was going to play the card for all it was worth.
“I just...I don’t know what to do with you. Starting fights, skipping class, running away from home.... I didn’t want to tell you, but do you have any idea how many calls I’ve gotten from Mr Lester in the past two weeks alone?”
It was all I could do not to blurt out that Lester wanted to kill me. It was true, of course, but that doesn’t mean she would buy it. “Hailee,” she continued, “whatever’s bothering you, you know we can talk about it.”
We could. But what was I supposed to say? That my life was a lie? That half of Three Brothers wanted me in a cage, or a coffin, depending on who you asked and what mood they were in that day? “I don’t want to talk about it,” I finally said.
“Has someone done something to you?” she pressed.
“No.” I crossed my arms, pressing my lips together.
She sighed. “I can see we’re not getting anywhere tonight. Go to bed.” I pursed my lips and stormed back to my room.
Once I had shut the door, I immediately tried the knob again. It wouldn’t give. I tried the window. Nothing. Gram had changed every exit in the house to lock from outside. I swore loudly. There was no way I was getting out; I was stuck here for good.
I picked up a knickknack from the dresser and hurled it across the room in a rage. It smashed, leaving a dent in the pristinely papered wall and littering the floor with porcelain dust and chips of cheap paint. I wanted to cry. After everything I’d done, I had been dragged back here. Back to my tower. I was truly a prisoner. No, I told myself. I will get out of here. There has to be a way. I’ll find it, no matter how long it takes.
But my time was running out. It was nine p.m. on the night of the nineteenth (the two officers had stayed for much longer than they were welcome). I had two more nights left before I would Change again. I had to be away from the house when that happened. Otherwise...well, Gram had a gun. If she saw me, there was no doubt in my mind that -- inadvertently -- either she would kill me...or I would kill her.
I wasn’t sure which would worse.
Gram had really locked things up next morning. She wouldn’t let me onto the school bus, instead driving me in her beat-up old BMW, watching me like a police officer viewing a security tape the entire time. If she wanted me to talk, she was disappointed. I looked everywhere except her face, turning up the radio volume until it was clear I wasn’t going to listen. The catchy bass hook of “Seven Nation Army” poured from the speakers, drowning out my thoughts.
“Have a good day,” she said as I stepped out.
“I will,” I replied automatically, monotone. It meant nothing, just a programmed response. It was what I was supposed to say.
I sat through Comp, and Algebra, and then when lunch rolled around, made my way to the furthest corner of the bus lot, away from everyone.
Except Mark Prosper, apparently.
“You’ve got a lotta nerve comin’ back, Jackson,” he said in a low voice.
“Shove it, Prosper.”
He laughed menacingly. “You know half this city wants you dead,” he said in a low voice, eerily echoing my thoughts from the prior night, “but not me.”
“So what do you want?”
“I want to see you put in your place,” he said. “I wanna see them chain you, cuff you, lock you up and watch you beat at the walls of your prison until you bleed.” He said this as “until you bl-ee-d,” drawing every letter out as if that made it more of a threat somehow. “I want to see you robbed of your precious strength, your oh-so-special powers, and look into your eyes and see your defeat as you realize what it is to be weak! I want you to know what you’ve lost, and if I know anything about you, once that’s gone, you’ll wish for death.”
“Well,” I said nonchalantly, conversationally, “I’m just glad to see you’ve upgraded your vocabulary.” There was no secret about it now -- Mark Prosper worked for the Defenders.
“I mean it, Jackson. By tomorrow, this place will be swarming with hunters. They’ll come in with their shiny guns and black coats, and take you away to a confinement center. If they rule you dangerous enough, you know what they’ll do?”
“They’ll chain you by your wrists and neck to the wall, on your knees, just like in the movies. And the chains they use are laced with silver alloy, so no matter how hard you fight, you’ll never get out. You’ll spend the rest of your life caged, like the dog you are.”
I will admit, his words had set the acids sloshing in my stomach (or that could have been the terrible rubber cafeteria food), but his insult had set them alight, a bitter cocktail burning up my insides like gasoline. “I hate you,” I snapped, my voice low and guttural. “Words escape me to describe the kind of passion I hate you with.”
He grinned, flashing his teeth. “You’ll hate me even more when you see this,” he said, pulling a file from his book bag. Two names were written on it, one I didn’t recognize. The other read, Recruit Markus A. Prosper. Below it was written For your eyes only. “I’m a Defender,” he said proudly. “Certified and all. I’m coming after you.”
“I’m just so scared of you now,” I said sarcastically.
“You should be,” he said, either oblivious to my sarcasm or ignoring it.
“Well, I’m not,” I said, speaking very slowly just to show him how stupid he was being.
“Then I’ll make you.” The threat seemed empty as he turned away. I sneered at his retreating back...and he swung, slamming his fist into my mouth.
A shockwave like a San Fransisco earthquake went through my teeth. I stumbled backwards into a metal pole, spitting gauzy blood all over the sidewalk. Mark swung again, this time hitting the side of my head. All hearing in my left ear abruptly short-circuited. I tried to steady myself; the world was reeling, a blur of running colors and stabs of pain.
I struck back at Mark, hitting his eye. With satisfaction, I decided it would probably be black in the morning. Before he could regain his composure, I charged, grappling his wrists and driving him backwards into the wall. By this time, a group of obnoxious and utterly bored freshman had gathered around us, chanting, “Fight! Fight! Fight!”
“C’mon, Mark!” one of his gang members shouted, throwing his canned plums at us just for kicks. “She’s just a girl!” screamed another.
Holly was watching too, cheering me on. “Go get ’im, Hailee!” she screamed at the top of her voice. “You know you can beat him!”
He drove his heel into my ankle, the pain making me lose my grip. With one free hand, he delivered an uppercut to my chin. I responded by wrapping my legs around his, and flipping the both of us to the pavement. On the ground, I hit him, repeatedly, until he turned the tables, rolling over on top of me. I convulsed with pain as I felt the firm flesh and rigid bones of his fist repeatedly digging into my face, my neck, my chest. I tried to hold on through the pain, tried so hard that the barely audible cry of, “Stop!” that escaped my lips didn’t even feel like mine.
“Beg me,” he taunted. “Come on then, you dog, beg me!”
Right then, at that exact moment, something inside me snapped. Canine fangs slipped from my gums, pushing through the film of blood that ran from my mouth and down my throat. Whispering something obscene in Mark’s direction, I forced myself from the ground and sank my teeth into his flesh. My taste buds smarted with the taste of sweat, and blood not my own, making my eyes sting.
He screamed. He wouldn’t stop screaming. I held firm, forcing myself, even through my own disgust, to bite down though the tendons. More blood rushed into my mouth, a ruby-colored flood, choking me. He punched me, harder than ever, in the jaw, slamming my head down onto the sidewalk. The world spun. “Don’t...make...me...angry,” I gasped triumphantly.
“You,” he sputtered, getting to his feet. “You. If -- if I found out you’ve...given me...anything....”
I stood as well. “What?” I smirked. “Afraid I’ve got rabies?”
“That’s not what I meant,” he said through gritted teeth. “You had blood in your mouth. I’ve been in contact with your blood. If you’ve...infected me....”
“Then serves you right,” I said firmly. A downright evil smile spread over my features, made, I’m sure, even more terrifying by the bloodstains covering my face. “You should know better than either of us what they do to people like that.” It was only know that I could see, through the ungodly amounts of blood staining every part of his upper body, the thin strip of flesh missing from his upper arm. It was a gruesome image -- the skin rolled back, laying bare the inner workings of the anatomy, the muscles and tendons and veins, some of which were split and spilling their contents everywhere. “I guess we’ll see tomorrow night, won’t we?” Because of course his superiors in the PDs would want to make sure first. That was some satisfaction, the idea of him writhing, pained, overtaken by evil sensation, on the ground, frothing at the mouth.
“If you’ve infected me,” Mark screamed, “I’ll kill you. I’ll get assigned to your case, and I will hunt you down and kill you, I swear to God.”
The principal came running out into the lot, along with the administrator, Mrs Omar. “Alright, alright, what’s going on here?”
The shouting, cheering, jeering circle had gone deathly quiet, and I don’t blame them. The pavement was soaked with blood, his and mine. Both of us looked like extras in a zombie movie: his right eye was blackening, his fingernails were cracked open and the finger’s joints were bent unnaturally, and the ripped flesh in his arm had bled so much that a pool of the sticky stuff had spread all over his shirt. My lower lip was dripping blood, so was my nose, my deafened ear had gone red, and I had opened a gash in the side of my head from slamming into the sidewalk. We were both covered in bruises from the forehead to the legs. “You,” said Mrs Omar, pointing to a random kid in the crowd, “Joshua. What happened?”
“It was just a fight,” Joshua said softly. “At least it started that way. She...she bit him, bit a chunk right out of his shoulder.”
The principal looked at me. “Is this true?”
I was sullenly silent.
“Is it true, Miss Jackson?”
"Yes.” There was no point in lying; it wasn’t like he couldn’t see all the blood on my face.
He looked exasperated. “Someone had better call 911. I think Mr Prosper’s going to have to go to the hospital. Miss Jackson, go to the nurse’s office, then to my office. We need to have a serious talk. A very serious talk.”
I could do nothing but obey. The nurse cleaned me up and told me I would be able to hear again by Tuesday, at the latest. Then she made me wash my mouth out, repeatedly. The nasty taste of skin and sweat and blood, so much blood, still lingered.
I could feel glances from everyone I passed, freshman, seniors, teachers, janitor, et al, as I walked to the principal’s office. “Shut the door,” he said. The frustration dripped from his voice. “Sit down.” I did, creaking the chair loudly as I did. “Miss Jackson, I’ve had it just about up to here with you,” he said. “You fight, you skip school so much it’s threatening your grade, you’ve run away from home twice, and now this....” He shook his head. “You bit him. Of all the things, what possessed you to bite him?”
I remained sullen, crossing my legs and focusing on the fancy glass clock on the wall. “We were fighting.”
“That was obvious enough.” He waited, tightlipped, for me to explain why we had been fighting.
“He threw the first punch,” I started.
“That doesn’t mean you had to punch him back.”
“And beforehand, he called me names and threatened me.”
“He threatened you? Threatened to hurt you?”
“Not directly. Well, sort of directly.”
“What do you mean?”
I needed to explain this without explaining it. "He said he was going to have his friends gang up on me. Attack me. All of them."
He nodded. "Alright. We'll make sure that's taken care of."
When I explained about the name-calling, he shrugged. He actually shrugged, and my mouth slouched open in shock. "Are you saying I shouldn't have been offended?"
“I’m not saying you shouldn’t have been offended. What I am saying is, for teenage boys, it's somewhat normal. Most of them are somewhat arrogant and violent, most of them do things like that. What isn’t normal, not in the least, is for a young adult like yourself to respond the way you did. Now, from a four-year-old, I’d expect it. From an eight-year-old, it wouldn’t be abnormal, if definitely reprehensible. But you’re going on sixteen. It’s not normal.”
My mouth hung all the way open, my fingernails digging into the chair’s armrests. “You’re taking his side?”
“I do not take sides, Hailee. You were both wrong, and you will both be punished. Unless you have something to say in your defense?”
I had many things to say, but I had a feeling none of them would help my case. Saying what I wanted to say would only make my punishment worse.
The principal nodded. “In that case, you’re suspended. I will tell administration to call your grandmother to come and pick you up.”
Gram looked only disappointed when she came to pick me up. She took me by the arm and marched me out of the office without saying a word. I had never seen her this angry. “Really, Hailee Raven?” Uh-oh. She only used both of my names when I was in deep trouble. “This is a new low,” she continued. “There are things I can handle. But this? You’re nearly sixteen! This is the kind of behavior I would expect from a three-year-old, for Christ’s sake!”
“I’m sorry, okay?” I said. “I won’t do it again.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“Well, this time I mean it. Besides, it was gross. I never want to do that again.”
“If you thought it was gross, why did you do it?”
“I don’t know!” I exclaimed. “I lost control. I went into one of my rages.”
“You can’t use ‘rages’ as an excuse, Hailee! You need to learn to control it!”
“Control it? Control it? Oh, well thank you! It’s good to know that after three years of trying everything I knew to do, it was that simple all along!” I rolled my eyes so hard they hurt. “Bull-crap,” I muttered. “So, so much bull-crap in that statement.”
“I don’t like your tone, young lady.”
“Well, sorry, but I don’t live to please you!”
“I’m not home. Try a different number.”
“Hailee. Raven. Jackson!”
“What?” I snapped back.
We locked eyes, glaring icy razors at each other. Neither of us was going to give, that was clear. We were completely, utterly, at an impasse. It was just a matter of who decided to fire the first shot, because no one was laying down their arms. “When I asked for custody of you,” Gram finally said, “I didn’t expect to become the guardian of the local delinquent.”
“Well, I didn’t expect to become the charge of the local evil stepmother, so we’re even.”
“Hailee, all I want is to help you! To give you a life, like anyone else! You’re just too pigheaded to see that!”
Gram insulting me wasn't even that unusual these days. “That’s what they say.” I did not articulate who they were.
“I don’t know what’s wrong with you. For all I can see, you’re just content to be a rebel without a cause for the rest of your life.”
“I have a cause, and a good one!”
“What’s that? Teenage angst?”
“Oh my God, how many people are going to tell me that before I turn twenty?” I said, exasperated.
“That’s because it’s true! The stage of life you’re in is a difficult one, and it often manifests itself like this. Just not usually this extreme.”
I snapped again. I wasn't sure how many times this thing inside me could snap. “Shut. UP!” I screamed. “This has absolutely nothing to do with my ‘stage of life!’ Bloody nothing, do you understand?”
“Then what is it? Is there something wrong? Hailee, if there's something really wrong, you need to tell me that?”
I put my head in my hands. “I...can’t tell you that,” I said slowly. “I wish I could. But I can’t. I can’t,” I repeated.
“If you won’t tell me,” she said, sounding tired, “then I can’t help you.”
“I never asked for your help,” I responded, calm now. “In fact, I’d prefer you didn’t try. I’m sick and tired of people trying to fix me, when I was never broken to begin with.”
“You seem quite broken to me,” she said softly. Her eyes strayed down to my hands. “Hailee,” she said abruptly, “where did you get this?” She reached over and touched the ring.
“Why do you ask?” I said.
“I’ve seen it before. It was your dad’s. Where did you get it?”
I decided to tell her the truth, at least on one thing. “He...he gave it to me, right before he died. Told me to take care of it.” I kept this open to interpretation. I assumed she would interpret it to mean that he had left it to me for safekeeping before he left on his last walk in the forest, the walk that would lead to his fatal accident. What it really meant was that he had given it to me as he died, as he bled out in front of me. He was desperately trying to tell me of my new lot in life -- to take his place.
“I’ve never seen you wearing it before.”
“It didn’t feel right until now. I thought, now that I’m growing up...I thought I would keep it. A reminder. A reminder of the person he wanted me to be.” I lowered my gaze, genuinely ashamed. “I guess I’m not really being that now, am I?”
Gram just kept driving. After a minute or two, she said, “Three years? Three years of what?”
I bit my tongue. Half of what I’d said had already slipped my mind, including the date I’d given. “Just an estimate.” It wasn’t. I had gone through my first Change when I was thirteen.
Gram seemed to accept my answer, however, and didn’t push the issue any farther.
“What are you doing here? Again?”
Rory Lester responded calmly to the inquiry, as he responded calmly to everything. “When I saw you the other day, you said to come to your house. So I set up an appointment with your grandmother.”
Gram looked flustered. “Oh, yes, come in,” she said, wiping flour on her jeans. Lester did so, gladly, taking a seat on the couch across from me. “Can I get you anything?” Gram asked.
“No, I’m fine, but thank you.” He set his briefcase on the coffee table, conspicuously within his reach...and out of mine. I wondered if he had a gun in there. “So, Hailee,” he said, “I heard you got suspended.”
“And how did you hear that?” I asked coolly. “From your daughter, perhaps?”
He looked surprised for a brief second. “Well, of course,” he said. “The other young man involved in this...incident is her boyfriend, you know. They've been together for quite a while, in fact.”
“Of course,” I repeated. I moved closer, lowering my voice. “How long, exactly, have you had Becky following me?”
This time, he couldn’t hide the surprise. “I’m not entirely sure what you mean, Hailee.”
“We can stop lying to each other, Mr Lester. I figured out what you really are a long time ago.” Truthfully, it couldn’t have been more than a week ago, but my goal was only to show him I wasn’t afraid. “You’re not who you say you are.”
“I am a social worker,” he insisted. “That part was never a lie.” Then, a cold smile covered his face. “But it seems you’ve figured out why I showed such an interest in your case.” He continued, too quiet for Gram to hear what was said. “Really, there wasn’t much to you at first. No one predicted you would be such trouble. But me, I knew the truth about you. My...other employers" -- The words sent a chill down my spine -- "had me monitoring this area for months. I knew I was getting closer, I just knew it, and then your name came up. Hailee Jackson. Now, Jackson on its own meant nothing; it’s common enough. But then I looked through your records. In a town this small, surely there aren't two people with the name Thomas Jackson.”
“What about Levi?”
“Levi? Sullivan, you mean? Your former guardian?” Lester shrugged his shoulders. “What about him?”
I felt relieved, and impressed. Levi was even better at evading detection than I’d realized. Then it occurred to me: in that case, who had Lester been after? Vic, maybe? She disliked talking about her past, but I did know that she was a runaway, her location officially unknown.
Probably me, as a matter of fact. He hadn't known my name until recently, but he may have known that the Alpha's child was in town.
Gram interrupted, bringing us both glasses of water. Lester’s friendly smile returned as he accepted his. “Thank you very much.”
“You’re welcome.” She sat beside him, officially ending any talk of Defenders or lycans. “I suppose you’ve heard about Hailee’s suspension?”
“Yes, I’ve heard. Tell me,” he said, “have you ever considered sending Hailee somewhere? To a reform school, perhaps?”
My heart very nearly stopped. If Gram agreed to send me to reform school, if she agreed with Rory, there was nothing to stop the Defenders from taking me. No one would think it strange. Please don’t, I pleaded internally, hoping that somehow she could guess my thoughts.
Gram considered this for a moment, a long moment. Lester sipped at his water, waiting for an answer. I looked down at my hands crossed in my lap, feeling fat drops of sweat begin to gather.
I sighed deeply with relief.
“It’s something to consider,” Gram continued, “but no. I don’t think that’s necessary just yet.”
Disappointment registered briefly on Lester’s face. I hid my triumphant (and yes, smug) smile. Not today, my friend, not today.
He stood, picked up his briefcase, and excused himself. “Thank you for your time.”
“Our pleasure,” Gram said.
“Yeah,” I said, “a pleasure.”
Our eyes met briefly as he walked out the door. His gaze was cold and stony, the friendliness completely gone.