The sky was an awful shade of grey and there was a chill in the air as June Gilley waited. Her body was tense, every muscle pulled tight, as she watched the front of the abandoned sawmill. While the double doors hadn’t budged, June wasn’t taking any chances. Every hunter knew that if there was a chance something could go wrong, it would.
The thought had barely crossed June’s mind when a yell ripped the silence in half and a large figure jumped out of the second-story window. Glass rained as the beast hit the ground with a sickening crack. But a broken bone was nothing to a monster. The beast stood, its golden eyes locked on hers for a second before it charged.
From the waistband of her jeans, June pulled out her handgun, quickly switching the safety off. The gun became another limb as she raised it, aiming at the figure barreling towards her. In her head, she counted the seconds. When it was halfway across the parking lot, June let out a breath and pulled the trigger. The silver bullet hit its mark and this time, the beast didn’t get back up.
Still holding up the gun, June stepped forward slowly. The sound of gravel crunching underneath her boots barely registered. Her heart hammered faster the closer she came to the limp figure. Its head lolled towards June as she came to its side. Thick blood poured from the hole in its chest where the bullet hit its heart.
As its life faded, the creature’s features shifted. The fangs protruding over its bottom lip shrank. The claws on both its hands receded back into the nailbed and its facial features softened. Other than its glowing eyes, the beast almost looked human. If it wasn’t for its unearthly beauty that every monster possessed, June would’ve thought it was just a man and not a hybrid.
She could see its life rapidly fading, but this didn’t stop the hybrid from wheezing out one strangled word, “Why?”
It wasn’t the first time June had been asked this question. The other four hybrids that had come before had also been curious. Still, she wished they would stop because the answer never changed.
Keeping her eyes on him, June replied monotone, “Because you’re a monster.”
“So…are…,” The beast began but never finished. The remaining gold in its eyes faded completely at the same time it let out its last breath.
June didn’t need a psychic to know what it was going to say. She shook her head, ridding herself of the words. She kept her place over the hybrid until she heard a low creak. Looking up, June’s eyes went to the double doors of the sawmill as three men walked out of the building.
Leading the group across the parking lot was June’s older brother, Brandon. Like their dad, he is tall and lanky with too long arms and stubby knees. Bran was a chameleon. His outer appearance was a trick on those who doubted his ability. On the inside, he was cunning. His success was as bloody as his red hair and as sharp as his blue eyes that always shined with malice.
The man to Bran’s right was Alister Gilley, renowned genius and June’s uncle. He was a legend among hunters for renovating the way beasts were tracked. Alister had created a spyware database that spanned across the internet. The system would report incidences such as when normal people saw a shifted hybrid. With the help of local news websites and social media, hunting had never been easier.
Last but not least, was Jace Chandler, the enigma. No one knew Jace the way June did. While every hunter in the complex they lived in knew his story, they didn’t know the man it had created. On the outside, Jace was soft looking with blonde curls and blue eyes. Most assumed he had had everything handed to him because of his good looks but that was far from true. Jace carried a weight on his shoulders not many people knew about. After the loss of his father, he had to learn how to survive on his own.
“Next time, someone else is keeping watch,” June said, not hiding her agitation. She lowered her gun and switched the safety off, “If I wasn’t here the hybrid would’ve gotten away.”
“As if you have anywhere else to go,” Bran scoffed, his eyes on the body. He nudged the hybrid’s shoulder with his foot as he expected the creature to pop up. When it didn’t, his eyes went to hers, “An inch to the left and you would have missed the heart.”
June’s hand clenched around the gun. A small part of her itched to put a bullet through him. Bran may be her brother by blood, but he certainly didn’t act like it. There was not an ounce of love between them and it had been that way since June’s first breath. He never missed an opportunity to belittle her. It didn’t matter that they had the same skills and worked the same job, Bran liked to pretend that he was above her.
Alister cleared his throat, drawing the groups attention to him. He nodded to the two black cars parked behind them, “We’re through here. June you ride with Jace, Bran you’re with me.”
“Gladly,” Brandon quipped and walked off after sending June another withering glare. Alister sighed as he followed after his nephew.
She waited until the car pulled out of the parking lot and onto the street before turning to Jace. Exasperated, she asked, “Did you see that? He is such an ass. I bet he goes back and tells our dad that I almost missed. Can he just, for one second, act like a normal human being with respect for others-”
June’s eyes went wide as Jace’s arms snaked around her waist and yanked her forward. She exhaled softly as his lips met hers in a chaste kiss. Staring up at him, Bran was long forgotten from her mind as she asked, “What was that for?”
Jace’s lips quirked, “You talk too much.”
She scowled but didn’t make a move to leave his embrace, “I should’ve let you ride with Alister.”
His smile vanished. Begrudgingly, Jace said, “No thanks. I don’t need another lecture on why we shouldn’t be together.”
June winced at the bleak reminder. Her family had made it very clear on how they felt about her and Jace. Since announcing their relationship two months ago, everyone, even lighthearted Alister, suddenly wanted ‘the best’ for June, whatever that meant.
In actuality, June knew they were stuck in the past. Her family couldn’t accept her relationship because while it wasn’t against the rules for two hunters to be together, it was looked down upon.
Hunting, unlike other jobs, was something a person was born into. Every hunter was backed by generations of skills and intense training. When two families mixed, it eliminated the possibility of bringing in new blood from outside the complex. In addition, two hunters that slept together, worked together since the pool of active hunters in duty was limited.
And then there was the risk of being bitten.
Every time a hunter left the complex they risked being turned. One bite or deep scratch from a hybrid mutilated a human’s DNA. In these cases, the hunter is locked away and then executed by their closest kin, be it their sister, wife, or aunt. The tradition was as old as the hunters themselves. It was a way of reminding hunters that duty ranked over family.
The thought of having to kill Jace, or anyone she knew, had crossed June’s mind more than once. She had seen what it did to people firsthand. Back in high school, there had been a few of her peers who had had to end the life of a family member. They all came back to school with the same dead look in their eyes and a heavy weight on their shoulders.
Time, June learned did not heal all wounds. Her own father was proof. Despite having to execute her mother nearly over twenty-one years ago, Dale was half alive. He walked through his life like a zombie, simply living through the motions. June couldn’t recall the sound of his laugh or when he last smiled.
“What if my family is right? What if we are making a mistake?” June asked, her eyes going to the hybrid’s corpse. An image of Jace with gold eyes, and fangs sent a chill down her spine. If their relationship progressed, the council would make her end his life. The mere thought of killing another person, especially the man in front of her, made June’s stomach roll.
Out of all the other hunters in town, he was the only one she really cared about.
Jace’s arms dropped so he could grasp either side of June’s face. His eyes shined with sincerity as he answered, “We aren’t.”
“How do you know?” She asked, keeping her unwavering gaze on him. June didn’t know what she would do if Jace was uncertain about their future. Before Jace, the days of the week blurred together. Now that June had a taste of what being loved felt like, she wasn’t certain she could go back to her old, bleak reality.
“Because I love you.”
June swallowed the lump in her throat and looked away when his expression began to resemble a man searching for water in a desert. She stepped out of his grip and pulled her phone out from her back pocket, “I-I need to call Neil. Can you keep watch?”
Without waiting for his answer, June left Jace where he stood, walking away. She could feel his eyes on her back as she went around the corner of the sawmill. When she was out of sight, June put her back against the rusted tin wall and let out the breath she had been holding.
As much as Jace made her happy, June wasn’t in the same place emotionally. She liked him a lot, that was for sure, but love? Love was on a completely different spectrum; one June wasn’t sure existed.
Dismissing the intrusive thought, June unlocked her phone and searched for Neil’s number in her contacts. Every complex of hunters across the United States had a team of specially trained cleaners. The man in charge for June’s region was Neil Lamb. While she had never met him personally, June knew from the tall tales that Neil only left his home when the remains of a hybrid needed to be disposed of physically and electronically.
The line was picked up after the third ring. Not missing a beat, June said, “I heard gunshots at the sawmill.”
“I’ll be there soon,” Neil responded dryly and then hung up.
June pocketed her phone with an eye roll. One thing the cleaner wasn’t known for was his conversation skills. She idly wondered what had made Neil the way he was, but quickly brushed off the thought. There were more important things to worry about than the life of a stranger.
With reservation, June pushed off the wall and rounded the corner. She took her time getting back to Jace. He was leaning against the car with his back to her, watching the road. Feeling nauseous, June walked up to his side, “The cleaners are on the way.”
Jace nodded in acknowledgment and silence stretched between them for a long minute. When she couldn’t take it anymore, she exhaled, “I’m sorry.”
“For what?” Jace retorted. His eyes went to the ground and his shoe dug into the dirt, “I wasn’t expecting you to say it back. I just thought you would want to know.”
Relief flooded June. She reached over and grabbed his hand, squeezing it, “How did I get so lucky?”
Jace’s lips melted into a lazy smile, “I ask myself the same thing every night.”
“You’re a cheese ball,” June laughed, shoving his shoulder with her free hand. A thought crossed her mind and she bit her lip, her voice was low as she said, “The sawmill is empty, and there’s still an hour before curfew.”
Jace’s brows shot up in surprise. He cleared his throat, “What about Neil? Shouldn’t we wait for him?”
“No, I trust that he knows what a dead body looks like,” June quipped, stepping so close to Jace there was no room for air between chests. Standing on the tip of her toes, June pressed her lips to his neck before asking, “Do you want to stay here or come with me?”
He swallowed, “I’ll take the second option.”
With that, June grabbed his hand and started for the empty building behind them. Over her shoulder, she grinned, “Do you trust me?”
Jace’s eyes went to the sawmill warily, “Are you sure?”
“No,” She admitted. The sawmill was far from being a five-star motel. “But we both know my father is going to be all over us the minute we get back. Who knows when we will have another opportunity to be alone.”
June knew the second she had hooked him when realization passed over his face. No one in the complex was immune to her father’s overbearing ways, especially the two of them. Out of all her family members, Dale, June’s father, had personally taken it upon himself to break them up. He wasn’t above using his power to manipulate them from seeing one another. Behind the complex walls, Dale always found something for June to do from sunup to dusk to keep her away from Jace.
In retaliation, this was the result. June was going to spend every second she was away from the complex with the man at her side. She didn’t even care that they were about to do so in a place a hybrid had lived. All that mattered was that they were together.
June didn’t notice that Jace had taken over leading them until he was pulling her through the threshold of the sawmill. The door shut on its own, making the walls shake. Her eyes roamed over the floor which was covered in sawdust and what she hoped was not rat feces. The only light came through the missing sheets of tin in the ceiling.
Jace pointed above their heads to a small, shoddy looking loft right above the door, “That’s where the hybrid was living.”
“Then it’s probably the cleanest part of the building,” June commented, “I bet he at least had a blanket or two up there.”
Without a word, Jace pulled her towards the wooden ladder. He dropped her hand and stepped on the first rung and then the second. When it didn’t collapse, he continued until he reached the loft. Looking down, he held up a finger to June to wait and disappeared as he pulled himself onto the second landing.
June couldn’t see what he was doing but she could hear shuffling. Dust rained down on her as something heavy moved across the floor. It was like that for a solid minute before Jace’s voice echoed around her, “You can come up now.”
“About time,” June grumbled as she put her foot on the ladder and started to climb. When she was on the top rung, Jace reached out and grabbed her under her arms. Without warning, he pulled her on top of him, the platform groaning underneath their combined weight.
Looking down at him, she asked, “What were you doing?”
Jace’s smile was sheepish, “Cleaning.”
June’s brow pulled together in confusion as her eyes moved off his to scan over the platform. It was nothing special. In the corner sat a pile of clothes and the bed was nothing but a palate of blankets. The only furniture was a desk that tilted to the left.
The sight of it made June’s heart clench. She wasn’t expecting the sudden pity that filled her. She couldn’t imagine living here, in a space among the rats with barely anything.
Two warm hands slipped under her shirt bringing her attention back to the man beneath her. Closing her eyes, Jace’s lips covered hers and his fingers traced patterns on her bare skin. Still, even with his feather light touches, June couldn’t seem to banish the heavy feeling that had settled in her heart.