I receive a text from Jackson the following morning that simply says: My dad wants to meet you.
Meet me? I think. Why?
I consider my phone through bleary eyes as I try to determine what, exactly, might be going on here. Still half-asleep, but awakening further by the second, I blink in an effort to clear my vision and find myself swelling with panic.
Remain calm, I instruct myself. This probably isn’t anything outrageous.
Still—the fact that Jackson’s father wants to meet me, after all this time, is unnerving to say the least. He could’ve asked to meet me after they’d first arrived, and yet, he hadn’t. But now?
Now, I think, I know a secret.
One so deep that it could change the course of my existence.
A sigh escapes me in the moments thereafter; and though I want to do nothing more than ignore what’s happening and fall back asleep, I know for a fact that I can’t.
So, with that in mind: I shrug the blankets off my shoulders, push myself up with my elbow, then lean forward and text, When?
A.S.A.P., he replies.
The acronym is enough to fill me with dread.
For several long moments, I simply rest here—staring at the phone, attempting to pull my thoughts together. My chest tightens. My lungs contract. My breathing exercises kick in almost instantly.
Before I know it, I’m out of the bed and making my way into my attached bathroom.
Within minutes, I’m in the shower.
In less than ten, I’m out of it.
In fifteen, I’m in full dress—my hair done, my makeup completed.
I’ve just opened the door and am about to step out when I see my father step out of his and my mother’s room. “Going somewhere?” he asks.
“Nuh-No,” I manage, taking a deep breath. “At least, not anywhere far.”
He cocks an eyebrow at me.
He does, too. “You okay, Oaklynn?”
“Jackson invited me over to meet his father,” I offer—hoping, to God and whatever angels might be listening, that my father doesn’t push for further answers.
“That’s nice,” my father replies. “I take it you haven’t met him yet?”
“No,” I say, then add: “Have you?”
“No.” My father crosses his arms over his chest. “He seems like a secretive type.”
“He has M.S.,” I reply.
“M.S.?” my father asks.
“Ah. I see.” My father sighs and looks out at the kitchen. “I take you’re heading over there right now?”
“Jackson said he had homework for me.”
“Okay. Let me or your mother know if you need anything.”
“I will,” I say, and step forward.
I have just crossed the length of the hall when I realize just how easily I managed to get permission to go across the street—to a house that might be unsupervised to hang out with a boy he doesn’t even know.
I turn to face him. “Dad?” I ask. “Is something wrong?”
“What do you mean?” my father replies.
“I… I was just wondering… because of the job thing, you know?”
“I know.” My father steps forward to face me. “We’re seeking legal recourse now.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”
“It has to be, Oaklynn. We can’t afford to not have money. The insurance policy from your mother’s shop is tied up in this police investigation, and, well…” Dad lowers his eyes. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do now that I don’t have a job.”
“Don’t be, hon. This isn’t your fault.”
“I know it isn’t,” I reply. “I just… really don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything, Oaklynn.” He offers an obviously-forced smile and says, “Go on and see your friend. I’m sure he’s waiting for you.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I say, then turn toward the doorway. “Bye, Mom.”
“Bye, honey,” she says, without questioning where I’m going.
I leave the house in a hurry—not because I feel as though I have to leave, but because I feel I need to.
As I step outside—and as I close the door behind me—I think of how hostile the air seems, how agitated the world has become. A part of me wonders if that is simply the result of my anxiety, but a part of me knows, deep down, that I can sense the apprehension lingering within my parents, just waiting to burst free.
Crossing the street is a testament to my need for peace, regardless of the fact that I am exchanging one anxiety for another. At least those worries that are tied up in the Meadows family can be seen as something beyond my own scope of imagination, or even possibility.
When I approach Jackson’s doorstep, I inhale a deep breath, then lean forward and knock.
A moment passes, then two; a third, a fourth.
When the door finally opens to reveal a darkened home with very little character, Jackson peeks his head around the corner and says, “Come in.”
“Why are you hiding?” I frown.
“No peephole,” he replies as he closes the door behind me. “Dad’s a bit concerned.”
“About you coming over here.”
“Then why does he—“
“He wants to make sure you’re safe to be around.”
Jackson locks the door behind me.
When the young man turns to face me, he smiles, then says, “It’s okay. Like I said: Dad just wants to check you out. See what kind of person you are.”
“I didn’t say anything when I saw the wolf on the road,” I offer. “Or at my window.”
Jackson visibly blushes.
Again: I frown.
“Sorry,” he says, then bows his head. “That… that was me.”
“I had a feeling,” I reply, even though I’m not sure how I know.
“Jackson,” a gruff male voice says. “Is she here?”
“She’s here, Dad,” Jackson says, turning toward the threshold that I assume leads into the living room. “This way,” he then tells me.
As we step into the living room—and as my eyes begin to adjust to the faint lighting streaming from a lamp in the corner of the room—I’m not sure what to think, how to feel, how I should act. Instead, I force myself to remain as composed as possible in light of everything that has occurred—and realize everything that will soon occur.
A breath passes from my lungs.
A flicker of trepidation crosses my mind.
My heart pulses. My fingers flex.
When my eyes finally adjust to the lighting in the room, I look toward a single recliner set against the far wall—and see, without surprise, an older, albeit skinnier, image of Jackson sitting in the chair.
The man says, “Hello, Oaklynn.”
And I, without much in the way of response, simply reply, “Hello.”
“I’m glad you came.” He turns his attention to his son. “Would you like to introduce me, Jackson?”
“Oaklynn,” the young man says, turning to face me, “this is my father. Zachariah Meadows. Of the Meadows Wolf Clan.”
“Hello,” I say once more. “I’m… I’m not really sure what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything,” the man replies. He takes hold of an intricately-carved cane that’s leaning against the recliner and pushes himself to his unsure feet. He then takes a moment to compose himself before stepping forward.
“You need anything, Dad?” Jackson asks.
“I’m fine,” Zachariah Meadows replies. “You worry too damn much.”
Jackson nods and steps aside so his father can approach me.
The older man leans forward, then, balancing carefully on his cane to examine me for everything I’m worth. His eyes—colored like amber and fletched with gold much like Jackson’s—examine me with the tenacity of a predator, and take in every facet of my being. He then says, “You’re afraid.”
“Somewhat,” I reply, swallowing. “How can you tell?”
“I can smell it on you.”
“I thought people just said that to intimidate you?” I offer.
“No.” Zachariah shakes his head. “It’s an elevation in your hormones—something tangible, something that can be sensed.”
I’m not sure what to say, so I simply nod.
Zachariah Meadows takes a step back and turns his head to the curtain-covered windows. He stares for several long moments, then, as if deciding whether or not I’m worthy of further attention, before sighing and saying, “I’m sorry about your mother’s shop.”
“It’s okay,” I reply. “I mean… it’s not, but, well… you know.”
“I understand it was very important to her.”
“I’m happy that you’re alive, Oaklyn. But now that my son’s revealed himself—and, as a result, us—to you, there’s no way you can simply go on being just a normal girl.”
“I figured as much, sir.”
Zachariah turns to face me. “There is to be a meeting,” he says, “in exactly three day’s time. During it, Alecia Meadows—our Chosen Wolf, and my dearly-departed wife’s mother—will gather what remains of the Meadows Wolf Clan and decide what must happen now that a mortal human knows of our kind. I ask that you do not leave town at this time, nor that you try to run. I have your scent. I could easily track you down.”
I turn my head to face Jackson. “That’s why you wanted me here,” I say. “So your father would know.”
“Oaklynn,” he says. “He said that he’d go to… more drastic measures… if he needed to.”
“I may be uneasy on my feet in this form, Miss Smith, but as a wolf I can do anything.” Zachariah straightens his posture, then adds, “Even track you across Texas.”
“I didn’t plan on going anywhere,” I offer, a bit uneasy, and a little more hurt, that Jackson had lured me over here under the pretense that I might possibly run off. “It’s not like I really can anyway, all things considering. And besides—“ I set my gaze on Zachariah Meadows “—I knew coming into this that my life would be changed, possibly forever.”
“You’re a smart girl, Miss Smith. I’d hate to see anything happen to you.”
“Is that a threat?”
He shakes his head. “No. I just… worry… now… that your family has been targeted by Paxton Wells. It’s because of him that I’m without a wife.”
So it was true, I think. It was his wife who was killed. His wife who was the last red wolf in Texas.
I swallow the lump in my throat, but nod and say, “I understand. And… I’m sorry.”
“Life will resume as it should until our meeting has convened—or, at least, I hope it does. I’ve instructed Jackson to watch out for you during this time. While I understand that he can’t always be there, I can promise that he will never be far.”
“I don’t need someone to watch out for me,” I reply. “I can take care of myself.”
“That’s what everyone says, Miss Smith.”
I frown, but nod all the same.
“You are free to go now,” he continues. “Just be careful, and always watch your back.”
“Yes sir. Thank you.”
I turn, then, and make my way toward the door.
Jackson stops me before I reach it. “I’m sorry,” he says.
“Don’t be,” I then say. “I… I think I understand.”
He offers a small smile before leaning forward and unbolting the door. “I’ll see you at school,” he says, then adds, “tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow,” I say. Though I’m not looking forward to going back, I have to.
Jackson lets me out without another word in response.
When the door closes behind me—and when I begin to make my way back across the street—I begin to wonder if I should have tried to dodge out of the meeting with Zachariah Meadows.
Can’t do anything now, I think, and sigh.
Whether I like it or not, I’m stuck with these people.
I can only hope that things begin to settle down.