A Dormant Howl

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Chapter 11

Chapter 11: The beginning of the end

January 2008

It has been several weeks since my birthday-- my kiss with Jerry still lingering on my lips, tickling my tongue --but what comes to my mind, more forcefully, is my interaction with Tanner and Merigold. My moment with Tanner had been the first real interaction we had had before my thirteenth birthday. He was the Tanner I had known as a child- kind, gentle, and thoughtful. Then that rabid bitch had to break onto my family’s land, crash my birthday, and spirit him away after blatantly disrespecting my older brother and challenging our Luna.

Tanner’s reaction to Merigold was a total shock-- he just seemed to fall back under some strange spell, becoming almost like a puppet under Meri’s strings. After they had left and been escorted from my family’s lands by other partying clan members, I had gone back to the party, intent on enjoying myself but things had shifted, grown more tense. Like everyone was now under a great strain.

Even as they brought out the birthday cake and sang me happy birthday, my friends and family kept glancing nervously at one another. The spell of my birthday had been broken- no amount of singing and dancing could change that. The men- including Jerry, Beta Wilcox, and Jerry’s father Josiah -were all speaking in hushed tones and whispering. When I would pass by or talk with them, they would plaster on smiles and talk to me as though nothing had happened. It happened at least twice- once when I offered them birthday cake, the second when I can to get Jerry for a slow dance.

When I saw RJ and Jensen come up to the Beta and our former Alpha, I excused myself from dancing with Jerry and, grabbing Tameekah to take my place, moved to engage with my brothers. As I neared, Beta Wilcox and my brothers looked up and quickly plastered on amused but fake smiles.

“Hey, Desdemona- why you’re looking amazing,” Beta Wilcox complimented me, smiling broadly. I preened under the compliment, yet hastily shook it off.

“Please stop pretending that everything is okay when it’s not,” I whisper hissed so only the four men could hear me-- a feat, considering the company I was keeping. The men all blinked, confused at my statement- or playing dumb.

“Desi, what we are talking about has nothing--” Jensen began in a condescending tone. I rolled my eyes and stomped my foot in a huff. I turned to Josiah, staring him square in the eyes to make my opinion and point known.

“If you’re going to discuss this- Tanner, Meri, and what happened -I suggest you kindly leave,” I whispered. Josiah blinked, and my brother gaped. I knew what I was doing, and I didn’t like it. My brothers laughed nervously, and Josiah smiled, though it didn’t reach his eyes.

“Desdemona, I really don’t --”

“Yes, I am afraid you do. This is my birthday and my home. Forgive me, Alpha Nolan, and Beta Wilcox, but this business can be discussed elsewhere- either at the councils office or with the Elders. But I do not want to have this hanging over my birthday celebration. Please,” I said, trying to soften my words and make my wishes known and offering my neck in respect, “please talk about this later. I already had my night ruined and I don’t need it becoming worse by being reminded of it by gossip and whispers.”

No one said anything for a moment, the music in the background and my family and friends dancing, pulsing, and beating in tandem with my heartbeat. Finally, Beta Wilcox sighed and looked at my brothers and his former Alpha.

“She’s right, Josiah, boys. This is a private and delicate matter- one to be better discussed behind closed doors and in an official capacity,” he turned to look at me then, his eyes filled with pity and hurt- for me as well as his son. He knew we had been close once, though he didn’t know until now how much his sons change meant to me or affected me.

“My apologies, Desi, for my son as well as what’s happened tonight. We won’t discuss it anymore and we will discuss the situation with Jerry and your brothers in an official capacity tomorrow.” Then, in a louder voice, he raised his glass and boomed, “To the lady of the hour, Miss Desdemona Patchett and her Sweet Sixteen!”

The guests all stopped, clapping, and whooping and raising their glasses in an impromptu toast. I blushed and smiled, happy to have the party back on track when I saw the look that both my brothers and even Jerry had given me. It was...disbelief, incredulity, and sadness. I felt my stomach drop to my feet when I realized what I had done- I had asked, no- ordered both my former Alpha, my current Beta, and my brothers --to do something. Though it had not been a formal request, I had made one- and they had listened.

“You had no right to do that, Desdemona Patchett,” RJ snapped, glowering at me once the last guest had left. I sighed, sitting back in Papa’s chair within our living room. It was almost two in the morning, my friends were upstairs in my bedroom passed out, and Mama had already finished cleaning up the dishes while Jensen and RJ had escorted the Betas and Alphas home.

“I had every right,” I snapped, glaring up at RJ as Jensen came in. “I might not have a seat at the council table or have an official role within the pack as you two do, but I am still the daughter of a former general, this is still my house, and I will not have that whores name mentioned in my presence!” I growled, my voice coming out so strong for a moment I thought Corah had come out.

Both my brothers opened their mouths to angrily protest when I got up and walked towards them, causing them to jump back. I looked at each one in turn, my voice shaking and my emotions pouring out in a deluge of pent-up rage and exhaustion, “I know I shouldn’t have said that, but I’ve had it up to my neck having that bitch flaunt her stake on Tanner, disrespect you, and otherwise treat us all like we are garbage! And I am tired of being seen as just human!”

“Desi, we’re just--”

“I don’t give a damn what you’re trying to do. My birthday- my special day -was ruined. The last thing I needed was to be reminded of what was taken, wh-what was l-lost…” I began to blubber, my eyesight blurring as years began to pour down my face. Soon three pairs of arms enveloped me as I began to sob.

“Oh, Desi Doo-- my sweet girl,” I heard Mama coo in my ear, her hands gently stroking my hair and back. Soon afterwards Mama took me upstairs to change and sleep. My friends were there, sleepy but caring and offering words of comfort. Though they asked me what was wrong, I could not really say as I did not quite understand it either.

I felt as though my world had shifted-- that change was coming. Tanner was someone else, with someone else, and yet he gave me this necklace as though it was supposed to mean something to me. As though we were meant to be together...and yet, he was with Meri. She had taken my birthday, my night, and my best friend and protector away from me.

Though my birthday party landed on a Sunday night, Jerry and my mother were able to pull some strings on letting me and my friends have a “sick” day. After the fiasco of my party, I needed the rest and did not want to have to see Merigold with Tanner. The final week before Christmas break blurred into one- I did not see Tanner or Merigold, though her father had sheepishly tried to offer me his apology. However, when he saw Jerry and my brothers approach, he scurried away.

“What’d he want?” Jerry muttered, cracking his knuckles so the sound echoed off the halls. It made me shiver.

“Making up for the sins of the daughter,” I mumbled, walking away from them toward the car. Jerry opened my door, his eyes searching my face for something.

“I plan on talking with him about his daughter. How she humiliated you, challenged my mother, I--”

“Just drive, Jeremiah,” I huffed, impatiently. He pursed his lips, frowning at me before nodding and shutting the door once I had seated myself. Both of my brothers tried to engage me, but I was not interested in hearing what they had to say. Soon, they ignored me and talked with Jerry on the way home, avoiding talking about She Who Must Not Be Named and her hapless lovelorn lackey.

Christmas blurred by way too quickly, but thankfully I was able to spend time with family and friends. For a time, I was almost able to forget, though whenever I saw Jerry and the other members of our Clan council, the reminder would come back like a sharp pain in between my shoulders.

With my friends out of town or spending their time with only their families during the holidays, I was looking forward to going back to school, especially as I had gotten good news: I was going to graduate early as I had planned! I had just a few more classes and general education college credits to take in order to make the grade, but still it was exciting! I was going to be a Class of 2008 graduate!

On the rare occasion I took the bus to school, I got to sit with my best friends and share the news. “Girls, I got some good news-- looks like I’ll be graduating early. I have a few more classes to take but fingers crossed I can graduate with honors and start at SUNY Oswego!”

Both Tameekah and Lucie held my hands and squealed, earning us looks from some of the other teens. Daphne carefully adjusted her glasses with her middle finger, earning her a few eye rolls. Daphne turned to look at me, smiling.

“Don’t worry about them, girl,” Daphne ordered, waving away the strange looks while Lucie flipped off one of STD Meri’s brainless minions. “What’s important is, you’ve done it! You’re gonna be able to live - really live- and be like, an adult!”

Tameekah nodded, pointing back to Meri’s whispering cronies and unsuspecting victims. “She’s right-- you’ll get to live and actually DO shit, get a first-class education, see more of the world and become the boss of most of the people here! No, no, don’t doubt me-- I have a knack for seeing these things!”

Lucie, Leigh Anne, Daphne, and I all exchanged a look, desperately trying to not breakdown laughing. Tameekah had led us wrong PLENTY of times- almost too many to count. “Anyway, you’ll at least manage to not have to deal with Merigold and her whorish behavior every God damn day!”

“A-fucking-men!” The twins hummed in agreement. This mention made my heart trip over a beat or two, yet I smiled relishing in the delight of being rid of that girl. Like I had requested, my brothers and Jerry had all been careful to not talk about either of them around me. It should have made me happy, but instead it managed to make me feel...anxious. What could they be planning for him, for her?

Just as I was about to move off the bus, I ran into Tameekah’s back.

“Oh...my...gawd!” She gasped dramatically. I frowned, following her gaze when my blood ran cold and goosebumps broke out all over my body. My friends and I stared from the safety of the bus at a lone car parked just in front of the school steps.

The car is unlike anything I have ever seen before- at least here in Oswego or anything else nearby. It is silver, sleek, and shiny as though it has just been driven off the lot. The rest of my friends and classmates ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ over the car- it is quite beautiful, European maybe a Lotus Elise -when I see who steps out from the driver side. I clutch my books so tightly feel as though I am going to rip the spines out.

My stomach dropped when I imagined what she made him do to his pride and joy – Kathy, his cherry, vintage model 1967 Dodge Camaro – completely rebuilt with extra-large white wall tires and blacked out tinted windows. It took two years of blood, sweet, and tears to get that car to purr the way he wanted it to. Now it was gone – like Tanner, here but…gone.

“Holy shit, is that--?” Another girl coos. Daphne nods dumbly while Leigh Ann and Lucie both hold onto my arms for support and comfort. I trembled as I watch him walk around the side of the car to help her get out. His jaw muscles tightened, and he stared blankly at the skank who traipsed out of his sports car, her barely-there bodycon skirt nearly showing off all of her secrets.

“Yeah, it’s her...and him.” Tameekah grunts stiffly, her mouth twisting as though she has tasted something sour. Soon we were all walking towards the front steps, my girls circled around me like a human shield. As we near them, I absently feel my fingers graze the pendant hidden beneath the collar of my sweatshirt. When I see Tanner’s eyes briefly leave Meri’s face to glance at me, I drop my hand and look away- focusing instead on moving- one foot in front of the other -towards my future and away from them.

Focus, Desdemona Patchett, Corah growls. I nearly drop my books when I hear her, earning me several confused and concerned looks from my classmates. I sheepishly smile and insist I am fine as I take my seat in the first class of the day.

Everything will work out in the end, she assured me. I bit my lower lip and watched as Merigold and her gaggle of followers flounced in and took their seats, laughing and giggling and fawning over her “new boyfriend’s” new car.

How can you be so sure? She’s prettier, meaner, and somehow managed to take my best friend and turned him against me. How can this possibly work out? I mutter back when I feel a light pressure on my shoulders and across my chest as though someone is hugging me.

Because you have what she doesn’t, she says cryptically. The pressure briefly tightens, then relaxes as she disappears back into the recesses of my mind as the class begins. Before I can say anything to her or ask what she means, the room falls silent as our Principal, Beta Wilcox, Jeremiah, and Mr. Newton entered the classroom.

I smile and wave at Jeremiah, but instantly drop my hand when I notice the way he is looking. At Merigold. Goosebumps line my arms as Corah rises back, taking everything in as all four men converge around Merigold’s desk and box her in.

“Hey, Daddy! Why are you here? And Jeremiah and Mr. Wilcox--” she cooed sweetly, batting her eyelashes and ignoring the gasps and whispers from around the class, “--my future daddy-in-law! To what do I owe the pleasure?”

Mr. Newton looks between his daughter and the other two Lycans, licking his lips and showing his neck in submission. I realize absently that he is making this motion on behalf of not himself but for Merigold. Jeremiah and Beta Wilcox exchange a glance before turning and glowering at Merigold.

“Miss Newton, there is something we need to discuss with you. If you could please accompany us outside--” The Principal begins. Merigold frowned and instantly cut him off, motioning to the rest of the class in a careless manner.

“But class is just about to start!” She whined. Me and a few others bite back laughter, covering our mouths and fake coughing when she turns to glare at us.

“You- interested in class? Don’t make me laugh- you’re more interested in turning tricks in the janitor’s closet than attending classes and learning anything remotely valuable!” A boy named Asher (one of her former lovers victims, no doubt) hooted, earning him several reproachful looks from the teacher and principal.

“Asher Bucket, that’s enough! You’ve been warned before!” The teacher reprimanded.

“Yeah, even my doctor warned me off that venereal train wreck!” Asher rejoined, sneering openly at Meri as he grabbed at his crotch. The class broke out in guffaws.

As I tried to hide my snickers, I watched Jeremiah and Mr. Newton as they stared at Merigold. As the laughter, hoots, and snickers began to fade, I noticed how her face reddened, fists going white-knuckled, and her eyes flashed dangerously, her beast coming to the surface.

Before I could even register what was happening, Meri snarled and lunged at Asher, her teeth bared, and claws extended. Everyone screamed, jumping away while a few of the fellow Lycans- pure blooded and half-bloods alike -launched themselves in front, protecting the humans and trying to get Meri to stand down.

“Merigold, you need to-- fuckAAHHRgle!” A girl named Lisbeth- one of Meri’s cronies and a Lycan -got in the way, only to have her neck bitten. She screamed, blood dribbling down the corners of her mouth and throat, making small drop art on the white linoleum floor.

I stood between my friends, blocking their view from the violence as Merigold tried to escape the grip of two Lycan boys and a human girl. Lisbeth was crumpled on the floor, not moving. Then there was a shadow, blocking my view- Jeremiah.

“Merigold Newton, you will stand down!” He snarled, his Alpha tone be coming and shaking the room. Unbidden, a whimper escaped my lips- his tone washing over me. The power there, his will versus that of all present...it was nearly intoxicating and all consuming. I even felt myself and Corah wilt a little under the powerful spell of his Alphaship.

“Fuck you!” Merigold snarled, Lavinia in full control. Though I could not see her, her voice wavered slightly.

The smell of blood and tears mixed with the acrid scent of ammonia as some poor fellow student (or maybe a teacher?) pissed themselves. The scents overwhelmed me, making me shudder and wrinkle my nose in disgust. Though I wasn’t frightened, I was concerned for myself and everyone else in the room. What was Merigold trying to accomplish? Who did she have to show off her worth to here?

I cast a sideways glance at Mr. Newton who just...stood there. His face was ruddy in- anger, disgust, embarrassment? -yet he did not even move to restrain her. Nor did he move to assist Jeremiah or Beta Wilcox...it was as though he were in a trance.

“Merigold Newton, I order you to stand down and submit to your Beta and Alpha!” He ordered, his voice shaking with barely bridled fury. There was a whimper, then a snarl. Jeremiah and Beta Wilcox slowly advanced on her, the full blooded Lycan students also closing in.

“Merigold…” a soft voice called, causing everyone to stop. Mr. Newton took a tentative step forward, tilting his head so his neck was bared to Alpha Jeremiah. Licking his lips, he held out a shaking hand and beckoned her to stand down and come with him.

“Please...for your mother…” he asked again. This time, there was a deep sigh versus a snarl. Then there was a blur as Merigold was escorted out of the room by Beta Wilcox and a gaggle of students, the Principal and teacher following. Lisbeth was carried out on a stretcher, still breathing but her eyes closed.

As they left the room, Jeremiah turned and addressed the room, his eyes landing on me. “Grab your things and go home - classes have been cancelled for the rest of the day.”

“Alpha,” another Lycan asked- a girl I didn’t know, just as small and timid looking as me, “what’s going to happen to Merigold? Why were you coming for her?”

There were quiet whispers and mutterings, the rumor mill spinning and whirring. Jeremiah looked at me again, before turning back to address the room.

“Merigold acted in defiance towards her Clan. We were going to discuss the consequences; however, in light of recent events, we’ll have to readdress our discussions and decision for punishment.”

“What about her parents?” Asher asked, huddling in his chair. I and a couple other students noticed a puddle of yellow liquid under his chair and bit back snickers and whispers of derision.

“We will take care of it.” Without another word, Jeremiah stalked out of the classroom. Not wanting to wait around to see if he’d change his mind, me and the other students hastily grabbed our things and head home.

When I got home later, I told Mama what happened. She had been off that day from teaching so had not been a witness to what happened. Though she was not surprised, she looked sad.

“Those poor parents. I don’t know how they manage that little brat.” She sniffed, moving back into the kitchen. Just as I was about to make the argument for nature versus nurture and what a shit job her parents did, my brother walked in trailed by Beta Wilcox.

“As I’m sure Desdemona had told you already, Merigold was taken into custody this morning by Alpha Jeremiah and the Council.”

“Serves the bitch right,” I muttered. Mama smacked me on the back of the head. “Language!”

“But that’s not one of the best bits of news,” RJ said, coming to sit beside me at the dining room table. He looked at Beta Wilcox with a satisfied smirk on his face. “Get to the good news.”

“Due to Merigold’s continued disrespect to the Alpha and council, we were going to put her under community service. However, after her recent erratic behavior at school and attacking another student, she will be suspended and likely expelled. Due to the nature of her attack, she will also need to speak with a psychologist and will likely not be permitted to transfer to another high school within our or our cousin clans’ territories.”

“So, her punishment is to be...a high school drop out?” I said, trying awfully hard to hide my smile. I cast my brothers a sideways glance- they were both grinning. Only Mama and Beta Wilcox looked uncomfortable, but he simply nodded.

“Basically, yes. Her parents are trying to work out a deal with both the school district and the Council; however, her chances are slim to none- especially with her disrespect to the Alpha and his family.”

And just like that, Merigold Newton was gone. At least for a while. Her parents were able to work out a deal with the school district and the Council so they would not have to be banished or leave town. However, Merigold was put on parole, had to attend community service and mandatory sessions with a therapist.

“I heard she was going to be expelled. Desi, any truth to the rumors?” Lucie asked the following week. I did my best to hide my happiness-- mostly because I didn’t need Merigold’s friends attacking me or coming after --but also because I didn’t have anything to really say or do with her.

“Girls, I honestly have nothing to really say about what’s been going on. All I know is what the Principal and Alpha Jeremiah told everyone-- she’s suspended, doing community service, and getting help from a --” I began when I bumped into Daphne’s back.

“Hey, Daph-- you’re holding up traffic!” Tameekah griped. Daphne didn’t say anything at first, just stared straight ahead. Starting to feel uncomfortable, Leigh Anne cleared her throat and began waving her hands back and forth in front of her face.

“Yo, earth to Daphne! You still--?”

“Desi, what were the stipulations for Merigold’s suspension?” Daphne asked faintly. My other friends and I all exchanged a glance. Tameekah huffed, rolling her shoulders, and answering for me.

“You know the drill already: she can’t be allowed on school property, or even be near the school and it’s students for a six-yard radius,” she announced authoritatively, mimicking our principal. A passing teacher smirked, only to fake cough as they walked away.

“And what happens if she breaks those rules?” Daphne asked, her voice seemingly fainter. I frowned, a chill running up my spine as I looked between Daphne and the edge of school.

There was nothing there. Nothing but trees, forest, and shadow. The wind shifted and I froze, my books tightening inside my arms. Three scents invaded my senses, creating a picture inside my mind-- no, not a picture. It was like an outline or shadowy sketch, shaped by their scents.

Cloying perfume, fury, and stench...Merigold. Merigold was on school property. I turned to leave when I remembered there were two others with her...the first smelled of charcoal and stale air, reminding me of death and decay. I did not know it, but the other...I knew it all too well, and it made my heartstrings snap.

Tanner. For a moment, I saw his upper body covered by the lightened shadows of the trees-- Merigold’s arm draped over his shoulders and chest, her claws digging into him. And then there was something new-- I blinked as a motorcycle sped away, a flash of red hair catching my eye as the motorist sped away into town.

Her scent carried to me, feeling familiar and calming-- full of spice and warmth. It made me think of Papa. And then when I looked to the forest, the three shapes-- Tanner, Merigold, and their unseen escort --had vanished. It was the last time I ever saw or suspected of seeing Merigold on school property again.

June 2008

Graduation Day

“Oh, my precious baby!” Mama squealed, nearly choking me with her Lycan strength as she hugged me. It was the morning of my high school graduation, yet she made it feel as though I was dying or leaving forever.

“Mama, you’re gonna ruin my makeup. Just chill- it’s just my high school graduation.” I reasoned, trying to calm my own nerves as well as put her off. She snorted and rolled her eye.

“Just my high school graduation? JUST?” She seethed, though her eyes danced with joy. She took me by the shoulders and squeezed, missing my carefully styled hair instead. Though annoyed, I smiled and squeezed her back.

“You’ve done so much in such a short time. Oh, Desi Doo-- I am so proud of you. And your father--” her voice caught as she mentioned him, squeezing my shoulder again, “--he would be so damn proud of you and all you’ve done.”

I squeezed her hands and went back to getting ready. As she turned to leave my bathroom I mumbled, “I thought he was with me.”

Mama chuckled, shaking her head as she walked towards the stairs. “He’s always with you, my girl. Sometimes I think he’s here, too.”

“I know, I just thought I smelled him near school. It was right after Meri’s incident at school and--Mama?” I gasped, dropping my lipstick, and coming to kneel beside her.

She was sitting at the landing, her face pale as death-- eyes wide and filled with unshed tears, lips trembling and hands shaking. She wouldn’t look at me, just staring down the stairs into the living room. She kept muttering to herself, “It’s not possible...it can’t be...not possible.”

“Mama, snap out of it!” I yelled, shaking her and, not knowing what else to do, slapped her. Her eyes snapped shut and she stumbled away from me in shock.

“Desi, what happened?” She said, her eyes glazed over slightly. I opened my mouth to answer when she looked at her watch. Face reddening, she picked me up and shoved me into the bathroom.

“Look at yourself- barely ready at all! We’re gonna be late, now hurry up!”

“But Mama--”

“Don’t ‘but Mama’ me! Now hustle-- wouldn’t be good to have the valedictorian late for her own graduation!” She huffed, marching away from me to get ready.

“Hurry, Jerry will be here any second!” With that, I spring into high gear and tried to make myself look as presentable as possible. My brothers were out of town on business until today but promised me they would be there to watch me graduate. Without them here, Jerry became our Knight and unpaid chauffer.

My hands began to tremble I nearly poked my eyes out with my eyeliner pen. Closing my eyes, I breathed in...then out. In...then out. Corah stirred in my head, anchoring me to the present as well as the future.

You’re graduating with honors. You have met most of your college core credits. You’re going to be a Sophomore- you’ve come far, little one. Papa and Conan would be proud of the young woman you’ve become, she assured me. I felt a soft pressure on my shoulder, as though she was physically offering me support. I smiled at the familiar pressure and opened my eyes, seeing Corah staring back at me.

I, Jerry, Crow, Mama, and Rubi- you’re clan has you’re back. And oh, what wonders await us! Stand tall and be proud.

As we pulled up to the school, I was surrounded by well-wishers and my friends. I felt overwhelmed and yet so calm all at once: the most important people in my life were there to see me graduate, grow, and move on. As a large majority of students were either pure-blooded or half-breed Lycans like me, making this graduation a Silver Bullet Clan affair...which made me grimace when I saw the Newtons and Merigold in attendance.

“Holy shit, what is she doing here?” Daphne hissed, glowering as Merigold traipsed up the school steps with her parents. She was dressed in an off the shoulder flouncy and flowery mini dress that looked more beach cover-up than dress. I cast a sideways glance at Lisbeth and Asher Bucket. Both paled and averted their eyes, staring at the concrete versus their former leader and friend. Lisbeth raised a shaking hand to the scar around her throat, partially hidden beneath a velvet choker.

“Don’t worry about Merigold,” RJ assured me. I looked up at him, trying to find any signs of discomfort or anger. He looked down and gently ruffled my hair.

“She’ll be on her best behavior. Jerry and Lennon made sure of it.”

“Lennon?”

“He’s her therapist. He had to report directly to Jerry after each session. She’s making progress...but if she does do anything, she and her family know the consequences.” With a reassuring squeeze, he walked away to find his seat next to Mama and Jensen. Before I could say anything, the Principal came up to have me take my place near the front of the auditorium. As I moved with the rest of my classmates, a familiar feeling of eyes staring at me pierced through the nervous fog in my brain. I briefly closed my eyes and took a tentative sniff and smiled.

I sensed Tanner was there. I quickly turned around, trying to see if I could spot him. But I could not see him in the shadows of the auditorium. He must have made sure to sit all the way in the back by the auditorium doors for a quick getaway. I noticed without surprise that Merigold wasn’t in her seat with her parents either.

When they saw me staring, they nodded their heads and offered a sheepish grin. I offered a conciliatory smile back. One of the graduating seniors, a human boy named Sam Vicks, grunted in my ear, “Bet you ten bucks she is turning tricks behind the school with Tanner.”

Before I could mutter my shock or disgust, Jerry’s firm and commanding voice cut through the chatter.

“Parents, families, friends, and students- thank you for attending this ceremony today,” He began in a steady voice. I felt my shoulders instantly fall as relaxation washed over me. The school allowed Alpha Jeremiah to be a keynote speaker since our school was a mixed school -Lycan and human.

As he spoke, I failed to hear all his words. I instead focused on him. He looked amazing on that stage-- commanding, dominant, and masterful. He spoke eloquently about the temptations of life, how they could be so addictive and habit forming that they could essentially make you lose focus on what you genuinely want out of life.

I began thinking about Merigold and Tanner, her former group of friends and followers. The thought of ending up like her made me shudder. He made the girls swoon and the boys ache with jealousy. But somehow, I knew the only female he wanted to impress was – me.

Then, just as suddenly as he had finished speaking and the auditorium clapped, it was my turn to speak. Taking a deep breath, I stood up and walked towards the steps to take the podium. Even though I was the second youngest in the graduating class, I felt nervous as well. Jerry passed by me, leaning to walk down the stairs when his fingers grazed my hand.

“Warmed em up for you. Knock them dead, Desi Doo--,“he encouraged, his warm breath tickling and teasing my skin as he passed by. I shivered, then grew instantly nervous as I took my place behind the podium.

When I got up there to speak, I had no idea how I was going to top that speech. But then I heard a familiar but foreign male voice in my head.

No matter what you say or how you deliver it, you’re a star and your words carry weight. You got this. I looked up, momentarily startled. The crowd all looked at me, smiling and waiting for me to begin.

Smiling, I shuffled my notes and searched the auditorium for the voice, but I couldn’t find anyone that made me feel it was them. Just as I looked back to my speech, a noise caught my attention. Looking up, I saw one of the steel doors from the back of the auditorium fly open as his muscular physique stormed out of the ceremony - Tanner.

I froze, my shoulders slumping as I watched him leave. He was leaving like a thief in the night- missing out on one of the biggest days of my life. I felt tears begin to fall when I felt something stir at my back. Corah’s voice overrode my emotions, anchoring me to the stage and the task at hand.

Keep it together. Show no fear, do not show her weakness. You are a Lycan blessed by the Goddess herself. Stand tall, and fight. Taking a shuddering breath, I glanced down at my notes and began to speak slowly when I noticed movement at the back of the room. Jerry and Mama caught my eye and turned to look back, seeing what I saw, and glowering.

Merigold was slinking away from her seat in the back, her eyes glimmering with want and mischief. Several other Lycans, including Beta Thomas, must have known she was about to traipse after him. Before she could even reach the door, Jensen and another Lycan blocked her path. There was a quiet muttering, a high pitched almost petulant shriek which caused heads to turn and parents to mutter and glare at the Newtons. After another moment of silence, I noted with small satisfaction that she had returned to her seat by her parents.

I am a star. I repeated to myself, carefully folding my notes before looking up and finally addressing the audience. “Thank you, Alpha Nolan, for that amazing speech and warm introduction. I had something prepared but, after that speech and the events of the past year, I have some words of wisdom I wish to impart to my friends, family, fellow graduates, and classmates.”

Looking into the audience and the graduates in the front row, I directed my speech to the Lycans in my class and humans. “As many of you are aware, I am born of Lycans- I am a part of the Generals family. We are warriors, through and through. My father trained my siblings and many of you in the audience, including our esteemed retired Alpha, Josiah Nolan and our current Alpha Jeremiah.”

“When our clan came to North America for a fresh start, our way of life did not change. We still brought our old-world problems, biases, and beliefs with us. Once upon a time, humans and Lycans together was a fantasy, an abomination. But our esteemed Alpha Nolan, Jeremiah’s predecessor, changed that,” I announced, staring at my brothers and mother. Tears were in her eyes, and my brothers were both smiling.

“In fact, he made out lives better. It did not matter if we were pure blooded, half-blooded, or human-- we are still important. No matter where we come from, or who our family is- our futures don’t rest on our stations in life. Nothing can hold you back if you’re willing to work hard and strive for what you want to accomplish.” I assured them emphatically. And then, with a nod of encouragement from Mama, I shared with them the philosophy in life my Papa taught us when achieving our goals.

“The approach my father taught me is a reminder that all improvements must be nurtured, if we wish to reach our highest potential. Think of the smallest ripple in the stream: you can take every pebble along the bank and toss them in everyday, that would help the current move you incrementally towards your goal, but without the steady current to help move it along, how fast do you think you’d get there? Becoming 1% better every day is a simple, practical way to achieve big goals.”

“So, my parting words to my fellow graduates and classmates, I leave you with this: let us nurture our improvements, take each step as it comes along, and take each one percentage each day until we get to 100. Thank you.” Before I could turn to leave, a loud noise nearly threw me off my feet as the auditorium roared with applause, everyone clapping and whooping. Except Merigold, who was nowhere in sight.

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