In Which I Escape An Awkward Meeting In Dramatic Fashion
I spent the rest of the next day covertly filling up the gas tank on my dad’s motorcycle, which was parked out in Gram's garage, and packing.
I haven’t thought about running away since I was six, I thought. Because of course. Everyone tries it when they’re six. I was trying to gauge which items were essential, and which weren’t. I did have things at the pack house, things that had been hidden away for safekeeping before I was forced to move.
Jacket, two pairs of durable pants, several shirts, and as many pairs of socks and underwear as would fit, all essential. Deodorant and toothbrush, essential. Money, essential; I would need more stuff eventually. Helmet, cell phone, definitely essentials. My gun, probably essential. All hell really would break loose if Gram discovered I had that. I put it at the very bottom.
Comb and soap, not essential, but highly advisable. What about all the stuff I can leave? I thought, looking around my bathroom. Makeup, leave it -- I never wore any anyway. Razors, leave them. (Because really, no one cared.) Hairbrush, leave it, take the much smaller comb instead. I left most of my jewelry, but picked up one small rubber wristlet and slipped it onto my arm. It was Navy paraphernalia, with Honor Courage Commitment printed on it. I used to want to join the Armed Forces, but when I came into my powers, when I Changed for the first time, I realized it would be impossible. Too big a risk for me and the people around me. I kept the bracelet, though -- a souvenir of a forgotten dream, and the sentiment was nice anyway.
I still had room. I opened one of the side pockets, and slipped a handful of photos into it. I didn’t want to leave any of my fondest memories here.
I glanced over at my bookshelf. I can always buy more books, I reasoned. But there were a few that held special significance. A few rather battered paperbacks that I’d carried with me for three, four years, fantasies and classics and others. Okay, so some things were less than necessity, but I had room, and there was something to be said for sentiment.
As Gram headed out to have dinner at Vera’s, she looked me in the eye. “Hailee,” she said, “can I trust you?”
It broke my heart to lie to her. “Yes, Gram. Of course you can trust me.” I would miss her, I realized suddenly. I would miss this place, as much not-home as it was. It had become like a second home, or a frequented travel destination. Someplace you love, you miss when you aren’t there, yet when you are there, the only place you want to be is home. I sighed inwardly. I had allowed myself to do the one thing I had promised I’d never, ever do -- get attached to a world that wasn’t mine. But nothing could hold me there.
Out of nowhere, I hugged my grandmother tightly. “Well,” she said. “What was that for?”
“Nothing,” I answered.
“Except that I may never see you again,” I whispered after she shut the door. As soon as her car pulled out of the drive, I ran to the garage, bag slung over my shoulder. I put on the helmet, which smelled old and musty, and jumped on the motorcycle. Cobwebs were still on the handlebars, and they stuck to my hand when I revved up the engine, speeding off down the dirt road into the sunset.
I pulled to a stop outside the farmhouse where Holly lived with several of her cousins. She ran to the fence when she saw me pulled up in a cloud of dust, waving. “Where’re you going?” she asked.
“Home,” I said.
“But your house is over there. In case you're lost.”
“No, really home.”
I had a sudden flashback to the night my dad had died. “Where’re we going, Fred?” “Home, Hailee.” “But the house is that way.” He smiles. “No, Hailee. Really home.”
A strange look must have come over my face, because my friend asked, “You okay?”
I shook it off. “I’m fine.”
“So where is it you’re going?”
“The Vicar’s Lot. You know, the big house down by the lake that’s been empty for years? It’s not really deserted at all, lycans have lived there for years. I’m going there to live with my pack.” (I never figured out why it was called the Vicar’s Lot -- to my knowledge, no actual vicar ever lived there.)
She nodded, still obviously not used to the whole werewolves thing. “Sick bike, by the way. You’ve gotta take me riding with you sometime.”
I smiled. “I will. This weekend if you want. Call me.”
“I will!” she yelled as I sped off.
About three miles up the road from Holly’s house, the long, dusty dirt road split into two long, dusty dirt roads. The road to the left cut through the infinite fields like a scar on the land, eventually leading to the lake, with the little fishing resort that was essentially anyone’s only reason for going to Mountain Home, and then stretching on forever to who knew where. The other led deep into the woods, a skinny, winding road that could have easily been mistaken for somebody’s driveway, except that no one lived down there.
Or so people thought.
There was a house, a house that had been sold almost two decades ago, and had been bought by a man named Tom Jackson after years of being on the market. His friends often heard him talking, casually, of renovating it and moving in, but nothing came of it. Because his chatter was nothing more than a ruse. Thinking back on it, I remember Dad spending quite a lot of his time at the house when I was a small child, though I -- like most who knew him -- never asked why.
The road led deeper and deeper into the maze of trees. A short way down it, I jumped off the bike and parked it in a secluded, woody spot. Then I started running, heart hammering with excitement.
Vicar’s Lot finally came into sight a few minutes later. Before I even knocked on the door, Levi was already out on the front porch steps, grinning broadly. “I’d recognize that engine anywhere.”
“Levi!” Part of me wanted to hug him, and part of me had already had enough of that for one week, between Jason and Gram. In the end the former won out -- he was an old friend, after all. He was more than an old friend, he was family: my godfather, according to most, but I'd always thought of him as a kind of brother. A much older, wiser, tougher brother. I took time as I pulled back from him to look into his one good eye. It was deep and brown and radiated experience and traces of some long-remaining sadness. What it was not, to my great relief, was bloodshot. He hadn’t been drinking.
Fred was the next one out the door. I was actually expecting him to embrace me, and it surprised me when he did not. He just stood there and smiled broadly, his eyes affixed to me in a way that almost made me blush. “Hey, Hailee,” he said, casually, as if I had never left, never been gone, never abandoned him.
“Hey, Fred,” I responded, suddenly shy without understanding why.
Then came Vic, who was smiling as well, looking more joyful than I had ever seen her. “Welcome home,” she said. Those two words filled me with joy more than any others could, filled me with a feeling of warmth and comfort despite my doubt of the situation’s security. Welcome home.
“Don’t act so surprised,” I said lightly. “You knew I would come back. How could I not? This place is my home. It doesn’t matter what the big-shots in the Arkansas court decide, you --” I made a sweeping gesture around the crowded porch at all of them -- “are my real family. The law can’t change that. Circumstances can’t change that. And no amount of time can change that. A home can be anywhere, and a family can be anyone. You guys are the ones who’ve always been there for me. As much as she tries, Gram hasn’t. Of course I came back to you. I had to,” I finished. "'Family don't end with blood,' as Holly likes to say." Truthfully, I’d needed to have that off my chest for a while. The months when the custody battle raged between Gram and Levi were some of the worst of my life, and I was still working through my feelings from them.
Vic clapped softly. “Well said, Hailee, well said. Let’s go inside now, before it rains. Your room’s waiting for you.”
True to her foretelling, the clouds began to spill as soon as the door shut behind the last person in, which happened to be Vic herself, as if the sky had been waiting for her signal. Inside, the place looked a bit like a haunted house, run-down and dimly lit, but to me it felt like home. The front door opened into a large foyer, and a living room which had been made into a common room of sorts, filled with all different sorts of furniture that created an endearingly zany patchwork quilt effect. Next to that room was a shutoff room, which had been a bedroom and office of sorts belonging to my dad, which would soon belong to me. Levi’s room -- which was vacant as much as it was occupied -- was down a hall.
Off this room, to the left, was what had been a kitchen. Technically, it was still a kitchen, but as none of us actually knew much about cooking, it remained all but unused except to stash food.
Over to the right were the staircases, the ones that led upstairs, and the shutoff ones that led to the cellar. I wasn’t sure what was down there, and I didn’t want to know just yet. Probably nothing. It was upstairs that interested me. The upper floor of the house had more, if smaller, rooms than the ground floor -- the rooms in which Fred, Vic, and I lived. All the rooms lined a long upstairs hallway, starting first with Vic’s, then Fred’s. Fred’s door was covered with pencil doodles, little pieces of art he loved so much.
Then came mine. I pushed open the door, shut it behind me, and looked around. The walls were painted the same dull beige color as most hotel walls, and the windows were wide, giving me a view of the forested riverbank, which looked a lot less alive without the green on the trees and with the layer of frost that floated on the top of the river when night fell and morning rose, melting into the rain. With no one watching me, I jumped face-first onto the bed, feeling like a kid.
I started unpacking, making the room feel familiar again. I stuffed all the clothes I’d brought into the dresser and slipped my wallet into my sock drawer -- original, I know. I didn’t have anything to hang my pictures up with, and decided I would go into town tomorrow and buy some pushpins. The comb and toothbrush and such I just dumped on my bathroom counter, determining to put them away later.
I arranged the rest of my books, the ones I couldn’t bear to leave behind, in order by the author’s name, all proper-like. Names like Card, Dumas, Lynch, Sanderson, adorned their covers.
The last thing to take care of was my gun. I knew exactly where to place that: in the reaches of my closet where the things I hadn’t taken with me when I left the pack house were kept. One of those things was a small leather-bound spiral notebook, with the initials H.R.J., for Hailee Raven Jackson, carved with a nail on the front. Inside were my deepest secrets -- every note I had ever kept on the Paranormal Defenders. I flipped it open to Tyrone’s page. Under the low quality picture, in stark red letters, was written, He’s the killer. I pulled off the pen that was stored in the rings and wrote the word “Director” before his name, a question mark beside it. Director? Dante Tyrone.
The other thing in the closet was of far more sentimental value. It was a silver ring -- not truly silver, of course, but smooth, carved wood painted and polished like silver. A phrase in Latin was carved on the ring’s bulky outside -- A luce lunem. By the light of the moon, it meant in English. I turned it over. On the inside was carved the second half of the phrase. Ego sum, lupus, exutas vinclis.
A luce lunem, ego sum, lupus, exutas vinclis. My mind automatically translated the familiar phrase. By the light of the moon, I, the wolf, am loosed. “Loosed” was a good word, I decided. It meant unchained, freed, let go, released from everything. That could be a good thing, to be free, released from the boundaries of a human body, let into power beyond imagination. But it could also be a bad thing. It could mean unhooked, disengaged, unleashed. In other words, dangerous. Unchained is good; unleashed is bad. Being free was good, even power, to some extent, was good, or at least it felt good. But if that freedom went too far, you could become lost to your own humanity. It was what made the Changing simultaneously a gift and a curse. It didn’t make sense, but it was the truth.
I put on the ring, which was so large it covered the whole lower half of my finger, and determined not to take it off again. I would wear it forever and hold it in higher regard than my wedding ring, on the admittedly unlikely chance I would ever have a wedding ring. It was my talisman, my good-luck charm even if I didn’t believe in luck. More than that, it was a symbol, a symbol of who I was born to be.
Vic noticed when I came out of my room that I was wearing the ring. She didn’t comment, but I could see her eyes wandering from my face to my hand, where the still-shiny painted ring stuck out against my dark skin. She smiled, and it seemed to hearten her to see it, a reminder that I was back with them to stay.
I thought about the previous day, with Jason at the Edge of the Earth. I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I crossed over to the room across from my own and carved a name into the door with my claw. Jason. I was determined to help him. One day, the room would be his.
The rain continued to fall as I fell asleep that night. The rhythmic drumming of falling water on the roof guided me softly into dreamland. But I couldn’t seem to stay there. Bad dreams plagued me, not nightmares exactly, but bad dreams nonetheless. The same dream of the principal’s office and the black-coat agents kept coming back. It had been coming back for nights on end, so often my sleeping brain had almost trained itself to snap out of it. Soon as the cuffs were slipped around my wrists, when I felt the hot-cold-pain sensation shooting up my arms, my eyes would open. There would be no screaming. No gags. No shutting my eyes and feeling myself being jerked away.
The fear, however, was still there. Even when I woke up, it would nag at me, in the back of my mind, always the fear. I had never met firsthand anyone who had gone through the proceedings of the PDs. That might largely have been because very, very few had ever actually come out of those labs. I knew, from what research I had done, that terrible things happened behind those doors. The lycans they brought in would be interrogated for the whereabouts of their friends. Locked up in bare cells with one window on the wall, to let the moonlight in: “observation,” they called that practice. Given experimental drugs designed to sedate them and control the lycanthropy, that more often than not drove the subjects mad as a loon.
And if all else failed, if the prisoners would fight back or refuse to cooperate, or if they were “rouges” suspected of killing or biting humans, they would be shot. Put down, like the dogs they saw us as.
They were barbarians, these black-coats. They viewed themselves as horror-movie heroes, come to save innocent humans from “the monsters.” But really, the only monsters they ever saw were the ones in the mirror.
Now, that’s not entirely true, I thought, scolding myself slightly. There were bad lycans, I knew that. Lycans who used their powers for evil, killed indiscriminately in wolf form and human, reveled in bloodshed and saw wanton, uncompromising cruelty as the only true expression of their strength. However, unlike what humanity was lead to believe, those people were the exception, not the rule.
Well, alright. Maybe I couldn’t even say that. There were quite a lot of them, after all. If there are too many exceptions, maybe even more exceptions than examples, does a rule cease to be a rule?
And was I an exception? I never considered myself bad, to be sure, but I certainly also never considered myself good. If a demon sides with the angels in battle, is it still a demon? Is it still evil? Holly had asked me that once, and I never really had an answer to it. I did bad things, for plotting for five years to kill someone surely counts as bad, or I knew I would at some point in my life. The thought scared me, but I was sure that at some point I would kill or infect a human, and not a villain like Tyrone either, but an innocent. I didn’t want to, sure. I didn’t enjoy gore and death, even witnessed as a bystander; the thought of being the one inflicting it sickened me. But the Change, and what I did after it happened, was beyond my control.
What would happen to me once it happened? I suddenly wondered Would I become an exception, grow into a heartless monster with a taste for blood? Would I harden myself against it, become jaded and distant and icy? Or would I fall into a serious state of despair...even to the point I considered offing myself? It happened oh, it happened all the time. It was why Levi had drank for the first several years I knew him; he had never explained why, exactly, but I knew that was the reason. Because there was that one person, that one regret, that he could never forget for as long as he would live. So he made himself forget, the only way he knew how.
I gulped down a sob, not knowing where it came from. I rolled over and by the light of the small dresser lamp checked my wristwatch. It was 12:23. “It’s too late at night to be having an existential crisis,” I grumbled to myself. I had never been the existential angst type, anyway. I was what I was, and God had made me that way for a reason -- I wasn’t really religious, but I believed that much. I wasn’t going to complain about it. If I was evil, then so be it. That was for God to judge; again, I believed that much, that simple much. This was how I had always seen myself.
So why am I crying? I was genuinely shocked to feel a trickle down my cheek, to lick my lips and taste salt. I never cried, ever. Even a single tear, like this one, was a phenomenally rare occurrence. “Bloody hell, Hailee,” I muttered. “That time at Gram’s did you bad. You’re starting to go soft.”
I wiped away the tear, rolled onto my side, and was asleep the minute my eyes shut.
I made the daring choice to go back to school the next Friday, after three days gone. It wasn’t a choice I made for me, but for Jason: I had to find him. I had to help him.
I wasn’t stupid, though. I lay low. I went everywhere in the building that I knew Becky wouldn’t expect, and made an effort to come into every class quietly, right as the teacher hit my name. I answered quietly, and stayed quiet for the rest of the period. It was as close to invisibility as I’d ever come.
Then, as the final class was ending, the PA system came on. The principal’s voice echoed through the rooms and hallways. “Excuse me, teachers,” he said, “but I need to interrupt. Could Jason Kingsley and Hailee Jackson’s teachers dismiss them to the office, please? Thank you.” He paused. “Now, please.”
Jason was seated a few desks away from me. The teacher made eye contact with him and gave a little shrug. “Well, off you go, Jason, Hailee.”
“Y-yes, Miss Hinton,” Jason said, slinging his bag over his shoulder.
I was less quick to obey. “What do they want us for?”
“I’m sure I don’t know, Hailee. Just go, please.”
I got up, following Jason to the office. Before we entered, I pulled him in and whispered in his ear, “If I tell you to run, just run, okay?”
“Jason, just trust me. Follow what I say, and if I say run, don’t even wait for me, just run.”
“I do trust you, but why? Why would I be running?”
“You might not have to. It’s just a feeling,” I said, as the door opened. My stomach dropped when I realized who was on the other side: Rory Lester.
“Well, come in,” he said, welcoming and friendly. “No reason to just stand there.”
I walked in, my entire body tense with alertness. “What are you doing here, Mr Lester?” I asked, trying to fake friendliness.
“I just wanted to talk to the two of you,” he answered.
The words were innocent enough, but it still sounded suspicious to me. “Why didn’t you just come to my house, then?” That’s what he had been doing for the past months, coming around Gram’s house to check up on me. What was he doing, coming all the way from the city to visit my boondocks high school?
He didn’t have an answer for me, and instead motioned for us to sit down. Jason sat, looking down at his hands and fiddling with the handle of his book bag. I stayed standing, arms crossed, until Lester made another, more impatient gesture. Reluctantly, I took a seat beside Jason. “Look, Mr Lester,” I said, “if you wanted to talk to me, that’s fine. But what does Jason have to do with it?”
Lester smiled. Something about that smile grated at me to no end, and now that I thought he was a hunter, his friendliness bothered me even more. “Hailee,” he said, “I haven’t talked to you much about your former guardian. I know it’s a sensitive subject for you. But I think it’s about time we said something, and I’d like to speak to Jason about it as well.”
I began to fidget, keeping my eyes from straying to the door. Focus, Hailee. Don’t look nervous. “I think I know what you mean, Mr Lester,” I said, “and I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Hailee, this is important.” The friendliness had been replaced by a hard edge. He looked to Jason, who was still completely confused. “Jason, you’re a friend of hers. Maybe you’ll be able to answer my questions.”
“Leave him alone.”
“Or maybe you should just reconsider your friend choices. She’s a troubled girl, son, maybe not the best for you.”
I stood. “I need to get back to class. If you want to talk to me, you know where to find me.” I led Jason out of the office, and shut the door behind me. We turned away from the direction of the class, which prompted a questioning look.
I filled in the silence with a single word, hissed under my breath. “Run!”
Jason looked confused, and a bit flabbergasted. But nevertheless, he followed my lead, hurrying quietly to the door. I pushed it open, and once it closed behind us, started running. Jason followed, limping under the weight of his bag. “Why are we running?” he yelled, his voice sounding distant over the wind in my ears.
“Don’t ask, just run!” By the time I stopped, finally winded, my stamina finally overpowered, we were in the middle of the forest. Jason had fallen behind somewhere along the road. When I’d collected my breath, I went back for him. I was tired, almost too tired to walk. Also, I’d begun to realize I had no idea what I was going to do. Not only had I run away from home, but now I was skipping school, so Gram and my principal would both be looking for me, and Jason had gotten dragged into it.
The part of the forest I was in was hilly, one of the hills eventually leading to the road. I walked out from under the autumn-painted trees and walked along the side of the road. The roads running between Mountain Home and the small woodland towns weren’t given much attention. The few street signs were rusty, paint peeling. There were cracks in the asphalt practically large enough to fit a car into.
A few feet ahead of me, a bit of golden hair caught my attention. The person it was attached to was sitting on the side of the road, looking mightily bummed out. “Jason!” He didn’t reply. I ran to his side. “What are you doing?”
"Thumbing a ride back to school,” he answered. “I have no idea what we just did, but it probably wasn’t a good idea.”
“Live a little,” I said lightly, sitting on the ground.
“What was that about, by the way.”
“Ready for a shocking bit of news?”
“Hailee, literally nothing shocks me anymore. Shoot.”
“Principal Lester isn’t who he says he is. He’s working for the PDs, and....”
“Go back a little. Working for who now?”
I realized I hadn’t explained that bit yet. “The Paranormal Defenders of America. An order of werewolf hunters.” Sheepishly, I added, “I probably should have told you about them.”
A look came over his face like something had just dawned on him. “When...when you told me about your father...you said.....” He swallowed. “It wasn’t an accident at all, was it?”
I nodded. “It wasn’t. He was killed by a hunter who tried to take him prisoner. Dad fought back, and the hunter, well, he didn’t take it nicely.”
He sank down onto the ground, sitting with his legs crossed and his head in his hands. “Oh, no, oh, God,” he muttered. “Oh, God, who can I trust anymore?”
I knelt down beside him, putting my hands on his shoulders. “You can trust me,” I said. “I can help you. But first you have to tell me something.”
“Your story. How you got bitten. I need you to tell me.”
“It’s a long story.”
“I have time. It’s not like we have school, to finish, right?”
He smiled, took a breath, and shrugged off his book bag. He pulled a piece of grass from the side of the road, twisting it around his finger as he began.