Jackson hovers close by as the local police and fire department rush to tame the flames. As I stand here, watching the fire spread regardless of the firemen’s attempts, I can only stare—and wonder, deep down, if I was hallucinating.
It can’t be, I think. It just can’t.
One moment, there was a wolf. Then the next—
I shake my head.
No. That’s not possible. It can’t be. It just can’t.
But, for some reason, it is.
As I turn to face Jackson—and as he sets his eyes on me—he mouths only three words.
Don’t say anything.
I nod, slowly but hesitantly, and watch as my mother’s car comes barreling around the corner.
“Oh my god,” she says as she jumps from the car. “Oaklynn! Oaklynn!”
“I’m okay!” I cry, shrugging free from Jackson’s grasp to run to my mother.
She takes hold of me just in time for my father’s car to come barreling up the drive as well. “Claire!” he cries. “Oaklynn!”
“We’re here!” my mother calls back.
“I heard there was a fire. What the hell is going—“ He stops as he steps forward. “On…”
He and my mother can only stare.
And I, smelling of smoke and flame, cough in an attempt to clear my lungs.
“What happened?” my mother asks.
“The front windows exploded,” I say, “like someone threw something at them. Then… they threw in something else and—the place caught fire.”
“The sprinklers didn’t go off?” my mother asks.
“No,” I reply. “They… they just… did nothing, and…. and…” I let out a strangled sob. “I’m sorry, Mom. I tried to save the store.”
“Don’t apologize for anything,” my mother says. “Don’t you dare.”
Jackson Meadows draws forward.
My father approaches him in kind. “Why are you here?” he asks.
“I couldn’t get a hold of Oaklynn,” he says. “I was checking on her to see if she was okay after what happened today, but when I couldn’t get an answer, I called J’vonte to see if she knew what was wrong. She said that she had Oaklynn’s phone, so I was coming here to see her when I saw the store was on fire.”
“You went through the back door?” my mother asks.
“I thought I locked it,” she replies, turning her head toward the parking lot at the rear of the store.
“Thank God you didn’t, Mrs. Smith, because otherwise…” Jackson turns his head toward the store. “I don’t know what would’ve happened.”
“Thank you,” my father says, clasping a hand around Jackson’s arm. “Just… thank you.”
Jackson’s only response is to nod.
And mine? Beyond the pure shock I am feeling—beyond the dying adrenaline that is exiting my veins—I feel a sense of both relief and dread.
Relief—for having had Jackson arrive when he did.
And dread—for him appearing as he had.
He said his father had been called home to take care of family business.
Between that, and the fact that the wolves of Red Wolf have returned, I can safely deduce that there is more going on than meets the eye.
Or reality, I am loathe to think.
“Come on,” my mother says, tugging me toward the ambulance that is slowly rolling up the road. “We should get you to the hospital.”
“I’m—“ I cough “—fine.”
“No, Oaklynn. You’re not. You’ve breathed in God knows how much smoke. And besides—you can barely stand.”
“I’m just a little dizzy, Mom.”
“Go,” Jackson says.
He nods at me.
I, with a sigh, nod, and make my way toward the ambulance with my mother.
“Ma’am,” a man—whom I quickly recognize as Police Chief Ronson—says as he steps toward my mother. “Could we have a moment with your daughter?”
“She needs medical treatment,” my mother responds, though tugs me to a halt. “Surely this can wait?”
“We just need a brief statement. If we have any further questions, we’ll ask them at at later time.”
“It’s okay,” I manage, and cough again. “I can give a statement.”
The police chief nods and pulls out a notepad before asking, “How did the fire occur?”
I tell him in as brief a detail as possible—not only because my lungs flare every time I speak, but because my thoughts keep going back on what had happened with Jackson. I couldn’t just say that one of my friends had simply appeared out of nowhere after a wolf had shown up to drag me out of a burning building, so I exaggerate the story: stating that, after the assailants had thrown what I believed to be Molotovs into the building, and after I’d rushed to try and put out the fire, that I’d gotten dizzy, and had almost fainted as a result.
“That’s when Jackson burst through the back door,” I say, “and pulled me out of Flora Fantastica.”
“Jackson is… the man who is standing beside your father?” the police chief asks, turning his head to acknowledge the young man.
“Yes sir. He is.”
“All right. You can go,” he says. “Thank you for your time, Miss Smith. And we’re terribly sorry about your shop, Missus Smith.”
“As long as my daughter is alive,” my mother says, though I can see a hint of sadness in her eyes, hear the somber tone in her voice.
In the back of the ambulance, I am attached to an oxygen tank and allowed to breathe deeply for the first time in what feels like ages.
While lying here, trying my hardest to fight the urge not to fall asleep, I find myself wondering what will happen now that I know the truth about the wolves’ sudden return to the town of Red Wolf.
Jackson Meadows isn’t just a small-town guy returning to the place he was born.
He is something more.
As the doors to the ambulance close, and as we begin to roll down the road, I realize that one stage of my life has just closed, and another has opened in its place.
I can only imagine what might come next.
I am admitted to the hospital in the early hours of the evening and asked to stay overnight for examination. Hooked up to yet another oxygen mask, and administered painkillers through an intravenous drip, I rest peacefully in spite of the fact that I could’ve easily died, and find myself dwelling on all that has occurred tonight.
Between the realms of consciousness and not, I try my hardest not to imagine who could’ve held a grudge so great that they’d firebomb my mother’s store, but find myself thinking of only one person.
Considering what all had happened today, it made sense that he might do such a thing, in theory. But, the question is: would he really been brazen enough to do it?
He tackled Jackson. Threw a basketball at J’vonte. Called you a slut. Why wouldn’t he do such a thing?
The only problem with that logic is that there’d been multiple bricks thrown into the store, multiple fire bombs lobbed in after them. The fact is: Easton would have either had to have been incredibly fast—and, as a result, very dexterous—or he would’ve had to have had help.
Something, and I’m not sure what, makes me think it was the later.
He has enough football buddies, I think, to make something like this happen.
But would someone else have gone along with Easton’s plan to destroy my mother’s store, all in the name of him hating me?
Truth of the matter is: I don’t know.
Sighing, I inhale a deep breath from the oxygen tank and crane my head around to look out the nearby window.
Though the night is still young, I can’t help but feel that the nightmare of my life is only just beginning.
The following morning is met with less news, more questions, and further interviews with the police—and though I want so badly to simply cave in to the notion that it could have been Easton that had done such a thing, I know that speaking my mind before evidence can be found may only get me into trouble.
So, with that in mind, I keep my thoughts on who might have done this to myself.
“You haven’t been having problems with anyone at school?” a young officer asks.
“No,” I reply, then correct myself by saying, “I mean, no more than usual.”
The Latina officer stares at me.
Frowning, I reach up to adjust my oxygen mask over my face and say, “I had someone write Oaklynn Smith’s a slut on my locker in lipstick. Then post it on Social.”
“Oaklynn,” my mother says, her voice low, hurt, and questioning.
I shake my head as my mother reaches up to press a hand to her face and return my gaze to the police officer in front of me. “Besides that… no. Not… not really.”
“We talked to the young man who rescued you last night. Jackson…” She considers her notes. “Meadows.”
“And?” I ask.
“He mentioned that there was another boy in your school. Easton Wells? What happened with him?”
“He… probably already told you all of this,” I offer, no longer able to escape the truth of the matter, “but… he called me a slut during P.E. yesterday… then tackled Jackson against the bleachers… and threw a basketball at my best friend, J’vonte Fawn.”
“I see,” the officer replies, maintaining her gaze on me. “He did mention something about that. I merely ask if you have anything further to elaborate on.”
“No,” I say. “I don’t.”
“We’re going to get to the bottom of this, Miss and Missus Smith, to see if this was merely an act of property destruction and arson, or if it was an attempted murder.”
“Murder?” my mother asks, standing. “You can’t be serious.”
“We don’t know if the perpetrator—or perpetrators—knew if Oaklynn was in the building at the time of the attack. That is what we are trying to figure out by conducting these interviews.”
“I see,” my mother replies, and sighs. “Thank you for your time, Officer.”
“If you think of anything else that might be useful to this investigation,” the officer says, “please, do not hesitate to reach out to Police Chief Ronson. We want to find out why this happened just as much as you do.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” I say, and sigh.
The police officer offers both me and my mother a nod before making her way out of the room.
The moment the officer’s footsteps stop sounding down the hall, my mother is at my bedside and seating herself upon it. “Oaklynn,” she says, taking hold of her my hand. “Why didn’t you tell us about this sooner?”
“I didn’t want to upset you,” I reply. “And besides—it’s not like there’s anything you could’ve done.”
“We could’ve gone to the school,” she says.
“The school wouldn’t have done anything,” I reply. “They claim to be all zero tolerance when it comes to bullying, but… they really aren’t.”
Sighing, my mother leans back to look out the nearby window. She stares for several long moments—as if determining what it is she will say next—then opens her mouth, as if to speak.
I cut her off before I can continue. “Dad’s going to lose his job, isn’t he?”
“I honestly don’t know.”
“That’s why I didn’t want to say anything. I know how worked up Dad can get about the Wells, and… well… I just didn’t want to cause further conflict.”
“You are not causing any conflict,” my mother offers. “It’s these… stupid kids… that are making life miserable for you.”
“You’re telling me,” I reply, then laugh. I cough a few times and then lower the oxygen mask to breathe in the stale hospital air before saying, “Do you know how much longer I’m going to be in here for?”
“The doctor’s supposed to check on you soon.” She pauses. “Why? Eager to get home?”
“I just… don’t want to be here anymore. Especially once word of what’s going on starts getting around.”
“Don’t worry, honey. It’s a closed investigation. No one’s going to say what’s going on.”
“Someone’s going to talk,” I say. “Someone always talks.”
My mother moves to reply, but shakes her head.
The truth is: no one knows what will happen next—and that, above anything else, is the most terrifying thing of all.
If Easton Wells is mad enough to set fire to my mother’s store…
Then what might he do to me?