There is no way I can prepare myself for what is to come. I know that no amount of wishing, thinking, hoping, or praying will bring me any sort of clarity on the matter. So, I do the only thing I can think of:
It seems impossible to remain calm when the whole world appears to be against you. Like a girl standing at the edge of the shore, I wait for the tide to come in, my feet sinking slowly into the sand as around me the rest of the world succumbs to the ebb and flow of the ocean. I see, distantly, a great tide—and know, beyond a shadow of a reasonable doubt, that I will soon be swallowed whole by it.
Like that tide, life is barreling straight toward me, and there is nothing I can do to stop it.
I lie in bed on the last Sunday I will be a normal human being, staring idly at the ceiling while stroking Belle’s soft black fur. Whispers of doubt tread through my conscience, while in my lungs dwells the beast that all men fear to think of, breathing and sleeping and waiting to awaken.
Come out, come out, wherever you are, I imagine a voice saying. The big bad wolf is coming to town.
Trembling, now, from the effort of maintaining my composure, I turn my head to regard my phone, which is still dark and silent and devoid of any message from Jackson.
When are they coming? I wonder. When is this meeting supposed to begin?
Are they waiting for something? A sign? A signal? Something that will assure them that the coast is clear?
I find myself dreading not only agreeing to this meeting, but surviving the fire in the first place.
At least if you were dead you wouldn’t have to worry about this.
A sigh passes from my lungs.
I am just about to close my eyes when a knock comes at the door.
“Yeah?” I ask, pushing myself upright.
My father comes into the room. “We’re going into town,” he says, “to run a few errands.”
“All right,” I say with a nod.
“Do you need anything? Or want something?”
“No, Dad. I’m okay.”
He nods, glances over at Belle, then back at me before he asks, “Are you all right?”
“Just tired is all,” I say.
“Just remember to take it easy, Oaklynn. No worrying about things you shouldn’t be.”
Gee, I think, that’s reassuring.
I decide to nod instead.
When my father offers a nod of his own, he turns back to the door, and says, “All right. We’ll see you later.”
“Later,” I reply.
I wait for several long moments for them to gather their wallets, their keys, their necessary things. When the door opens, I find myself drawing a breath; and as it closes, I feel the tension pooling from my lungs.
The moment my mom’s car starts is the moment I’m set free.
Leaning forward, I reach down, take hold of my shoes, then begin to slide them on my feet.
I have no sooner laced them up when I receive a text message from Jackson.
All right, he says. Come over.
Was he watching the house? Waiting for them to leave? I suppose it makes sense—at least, in theory—but at the same time, I find it somewhat unsettling that he and his family were waiting just for my parents to leave.
“Gotta keep the secret,” I whisper to myself.
I turn to face Belle, sigh, and say, “Okay. I’ll be back later” before turning toward the door.
The cat skitters out in front of me and prances down the hall to the kitchen. I follow in her wake reluctantly.
At the kitchen window, I lean forward to look outside.
Across the street, the curtain in Jackson’s living room parts.
Zachariah Meadows’ face greets me.
I nod in kind.
Then, I am grabbing my house key and making my way out the door.
I don’t know for how long my parents will be gone. I don’t know if they’ll take their time, if they’ll rush home, if they’re going out on a date night or if they’ve just left the house to decompress. I do know, however, that time is of the essence; and for that reason, make my way across the street with the utmost haste.
As I come to stand on the front porch, I take a moment to compose myself, then lean forward.
I have just raised my hand to knock when Jackson opens the door. “Oaklynn,” he says.
“Hi,” I reply.
I step inside, and wait for him to close the door before turning to face him. “So,” I say, exhaling a breath I feel I’ve held in for far too long. “Where is everyone?”
Jackson turns his head to the living room as the sound of his father’s old rocking chair echoes into the entryway. “This way,” he says.
I frown, but follow.
The moment we enter the living room, I feel a sense of dread overwhelm me.
There aren’t any people in the living room. Instead, the massive ornamental rug that I hadn’t cared to take notice of before has been pulled aside to reveal a hideaway passage that leads into the ground.
“Oaklynn,” Zachariah Meadows says.
“Sir,” I reply.
“I’m glad you could make it. Alecia has been waiting for you.”
“Alecia?” I frown.
“Grandma Meadows,” Jackson explains. “The one who’s brought us back to Red Wolf.”
“Oh. I… I see.”
“Help an old man out, son,” Zachariah says. “Open this trap door for me.”
“Yes sir,” Jackson says.
As he stoops to grab onto, then pull the trap door out of place, Zachariah Meadows makes his way forward, and steadies himself on his cane as he comes to stand beside me.
I watch, bewildered and unsure, as Jackson opens the trap door to reveal darkness within.
“I thought they didn’t make basements in Texas,” I offer.
“They normally don’t,” Zachariah says. “Jackson’s grandmother had this one installed specifically for clan meetings.”
“We’ll go first,” the man says, reaching out to take hold of Jackson’s arm. “You’ll follow.”
“All… all right.”
They take the stairs slowly, effortlessly, as if it is commonplace for them to descend into a hidden basement that can only be accessed by a secret trap door—and as they do so, slowly but surely disappearing from sight, a part of me wonders if it was a mistake to come here, if it was a mistake to even agree to this meeting.
What could happen, I wonder, to a girl who makes a stupid mistake?
Any number of things could, I imagine. I could be kidnapped. Held captive. Made to do things that I would never imagine doing. A part of me feels as though I have just wandered into a precarious situation—and though I imagine I am not necessarily in danger, considering that I don’t believe Jackson would ever let anyone hurt me, being here presents its own dangers.
Dangers about what I’ve seen.
Dangers about what I’ve heard.
Dangers about what I know.
In the end, I know I can’t back out of this—and, as a result, can never go back to living a normal life.
So, I do the only thing I can think to do:
Stepping onto the old, creaking stairs leaves me feeling uneasy. Experiencing the chill that lifts from its depths is another nightmare entirely.
Breathe, Oaklynn Smith. Breathe.
So I do—slowly, hesitantly, in through my nose and out my mouth.
The darkness, as I descend behind Jackson and his father, is absolute.
Come time we reach the bottom step, however, a light comes on. Jackson is quick to retreat up the stairs to pull the trapdoor down behind us shortly thereafter.
“Where is everyone?” I ask.
“This way,” Zachariah Meadows says.
Jackson comes to stand beside me as his father begins to make his way down the dark corridor.
“Where are we going?” I whisper.
“The meeting chamber,” Jackson whispers back.
Swallowing, I nod, then make a move to follow.
When we come to stand in front of the simple wooden doorway, Zachariah turns to face us and says, “Anything you see, hear, or learn of in this room cannot go beyond this place, nor can it ever be spoken about to anyone outside this clan. To do so would jeopardize the safety of my people—our people. Do you understand?”
“I understand,” I say.
“Good.” Zachariah knocks on the door. “We’re entering,” he then says.
The door opens.
Light spills out.
Zachariah steps forward.
Jackson and I move to enter.
The light pooling out from the inside of the room is so blinding that at first I think we’ve stepped outside. Knowing that we are underground makes it that much more disorienting—to the point where, as we enter, I have to raise my hand to shield my eyes.
What in the world? I think, grimacing as I slightly lower, then lift my hand again.
“Light too strong for you?” a female voice asks.
“Suh… Sort of,” I manage to say.
The light is dimmed.
The glare becomes more tolerable.
In a moment, a figure appears both ahead and out my peripheral.
When I’m able to finally make sense of the world around me, my eyes instinctively settle upon a short, frail, and older woman sitting in a rocking chair, who holds within her hand the smart device that likely operated the bright light. “So sorry, dear. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be.”
“Are you—“ I start to say “—Grandma Meadows?”
“The one and only,” she replies. “You can call me Alecia.”
Jackson steps forward and presses a kiss to the short woman’s cheek, then takes a step back and says, “Grandma. This is Oaklynn. The… the human.”
“She’s cute,” Grandma Meadows says. “And lucky you’re smitten.”
Jackson lifts a hand to cover his face.
I think, What does she—
But before she can finish, the older woman leans forward and says, “Bernard.”
A tall man with ginger hair and bright brown eyes steps forward. “Yes, Mother?”
“Go upstairs and make sure that we won’t be bothered.”
“But I thought that this was—“
“A family meeting. Yes. For those most immediate.” She turns her eyes on the tall man and juts her chin to the door. “You’ve already heard what I’m about to say. So, go.”
She shakes her head.
The man sighs, but moves to obey.
Come time he’s out the door, my gaze settles back on Alecia Meadows.
“Something wrong, girl?” she asks.
“I’ll admit,” I begin, “that I thought there’d be more of you.”
“We’re a dying people, Miss Smith. It’s not often that the next generation’s Shewolf abruptly loses her life.”
“Shewolf?” I frown. “What are you—“
“The Mother Wolf decreed that only a woman could bear the seed of our gift, and pass on its fruits to another.”
“Are you saying your line is… well…”
“Stuck?” Alecia Meadows asks. “Yes. It is, in a way.”
“In a way?”
She nods. “Yes. In a way.”
I wait for her to clarify, unsure how I’m to respond or what to say. At one side, Zachariah Meadows stands tall, defiant, his lips pursed and his gaze set, while at my other Jackson watches calmly, a frown painting his features in a somber light. It’s obvious that he still has trouble relating to his mother’s death, even though it was said to have happened so long ago.
Alecia Meadows leans forward in the rocking chair she’s been sitting in to say, “I have… a peculiar talent, you would say.”
“What kind of talent, ma’am?”
“The ability to see the future—or, otherwise called: The Sight. It’s not often a Shewolf is gifted with this ability, but in my case, it has saved my clan several times over.”
“And you’re telling me this because…”
“I have called you here because I believe you are part of the solution to our problem.”
“Me?” I ask. “A part of the solution? That’s crazy talk.”
“It’s not that crazy when you consider what’s happened to you.”
“I foresaw the orchids burning, girl—the flowers incinerated in the blaze. I also know that you are being harassed by an unscrupulous figure—and, as a result, are possibly being tracked as we speak.”
I blink, stunned. Then I turn to Jackson and ask, “Did you—“
“No! I swear I didn’t—“
“Quiet, children. That’s enough.”
Jackson and I both cease our protests.
Alecia Meadows leans back in the chair and laces her hands together before saying, “The future is… hazy, at best—clear at some times, blurry the next. However: I do see pain in it. Frustration. Torment. Sorrow. Even agony. But it is not mine, or my kin’s, that I see.”
“I believe it is yours, Oaklynn Smith.”
I stare, stunned. “How do you know?” I then say. “What do you know?”
“That’s the thing: I’m not sure what I know. I came here because I knew things were going to change in this town—that the Meadows Clan, and those of the others, would soon be drawn back to the town of Red Wolf. These lands are… how do you say… ancestral. They hold the key to our people’s prosperity. But with that prosperity comes the possibility of destruction.”
The most I can do is remain silent.
“I call upon you, Oaklynn Smith, because I understand that you sympathize with the wolves’ suffering.”
“I didn’t know the wolves were people,” I say.
“Aren’t all animals people, in the end?”
I’m not sure what to say to that. So, with that in mind, I ask, “What do you want me to do?”
“I wish to invoke the spirit of the Mother Wolf on the next full moon, and offer you a gift that would change your life forever. The question is: would you be willing to take it?”
“What do you—I mean, you want me to—become a Wolf?”
“A Shifter,” Alecia Meadows says.
“Because without you, our clan will die out. The Gift of Shapeshifting cannot be passed down from father to son. Without you, Jackson would be the last of our line.”
“But I’m not blood,” I argue. “How would that save your bloodline?”
She shifts her eyes from me, to Jackson, then back again.
I pale. “I barely know Jackson,” I say.
“I’m not asking anything of you, Oaklynn. I am simply offering you the opportunity to help fight the hatred this town holds, and to give you a gift to brave what’s to come.”
“Another fire,” she replies. “One that will change everything you know forever.”