I open my eyes and blink.
The first thing I see is a gift sitting on my dresser, in shimmery gold paper and a bow.
The label reads: To Ryan, from Alpha.
I groan as I realize what day it is.
I pull the cover up over my head.
I don’t want to get out of bed and face the day.
And I don’t want to open that stupid gift.
‘Happy birthday, Ryan,’ I mutter to myself.
For a normal person, turning eighteen would be exciting.
For a werewolf on the other hand...
...not so much.
Eighteen comes with responsibilities.
Responsibilities like bonding.
AKA getting hitched to some chick I’ve never even met.
Still, there’s no point lying here feeling sorry for myself, so I push myself out of bed.
It’s a typically bright Californian day as I cross my room to the dresser and start rummaging through my clothes.
Nothing seems right.
‘How exactly are you meant to dress when you’re being betrothed?’ I wonder.
I decide on comfy jeans, a black t-shirt and a pair of Converse.
Then I drag a comb through my dark hair and head downstairs.
My parents are in the kitchen at the table.
“Happy Birthday, Ryan,” Mom says in a cheery voice. She kisses my cheek. “My little boy all grown up into a man.”
“A big, strong wolf man,” I joke.
“Did you open your gift from Alpha yet?”
Dad looks over the top of his paper. “Ryan. You have to look.”
“I will. Later. There’s no rule that says you have to find out at seven AM who your life partner is going to be. Can’t a boy enjoy his birthday first and think about his future wifey second?”
Dad rolls his eyes and goes back to his paper.
“John,” Mom hiss-whispers at him.
“What?” he says.
She points at me in a not-so subtle way. “It’s his birthday!” she mouths.
“Oh right. Yes.” He moves the paper down again. “Happy birthday, son.”
My dad. Always one for outward displays of emotions.
“Aw, shucks,” I say with a smirk. “Thanks Pa.”
He tuts and goes back to his paper.
If I had a nickle for every time I’ve made my dad tut, I’d be a millionaire.
I walk over to the fridge and grab a carton of juice.
“Where’s sister?” I ask, taking a swig.
“In her room,” Mom replies. “And please call her by her name.”
I grin. I’ve been calling Marie “sister” for as long as she’s existed. I mainly do it to annoy Mom.
I glance at the clock. She’s late.
“If she doesn’t get her butt down here soon, I’m driving to school without her!” I yell, loud enough for it to reach up the stairs.
“Please don’t shout, Ryan,” Mom says with exasperation.
It’s another one of her long-standing complaints.
I kiss her cheek, leaving an orange-juice mark on it.
“You know you’ll miss my yelling when I’m gone.”
“That’s true,” she says, wiping her face with her palm.
“I won’t,” Dad quips from behind his paper.
I hear footsteps and turn to see Marie charge into the kitchen.
“Happy birthday, Ryan!” she cries, grinning from ear to ear.
She flings herself at me, and I wrap her up in my arms.
“Why thank you, dear sister,” I say, swinging her around in the rough werewolf way she like.
I turn her upside down and dangle her there.
“Did you find out who your wife is yet?” she asks, as her face turns red.
I turn her right way up and set her down on her feet. “Nope.”
She pouts. “Why? Don’t you want to know who Alpha paired you with?”
She pauses and looks at me, her brow furrowed. “Oh! I know. It’s because you don’t you like girls! Tim in my science class told us he doesn’t like girls at all. He’s gay. Are you?”
Before I get a chance to answer, Dad puts his paper down loudly.
“Isn’t Tim your age?” he asks Marie with an incredulous tone.
“Yup,” Marie says with a grin.
“Isn’t ten a bit young to be making that sort of decision?”
“Oh hush, John,” Mom scolds. “Things are different now than they were when we were young. Let the kids do things their way. The world will be better for it.”
Dad grunts and goes back to his paper. He doesn’t like being put in his place like that.
Maria tugs my shirt. “You didn’t answer my question.”
“About being gay?”
I laugh. “Nah. I like girls. A lot. I just don’t want one to be chosen for me by the pack Alpha to be my wife before I’ve even left high school. Doesn’t seem like too strange a request if you ask me.”
“Ryan,” Mom and Dad warn in unison.
It’s against pack rules to criticize our Alpha. He’s four-hundred-years-old. He’s been running our pack, The Californian Howlers, for generations. He’s the reason we’re so plentiful. So numerous. And so god-darn hunky. His excellent match making skills have been pairing successful werewolf couples for decades. Who am I to argue, right?
“I’m just saying,” I reply. “I’d like to choose.”
Mom chuckles. “As if you’d be able to find anyone any better than who Alpha suggests for you! Ryan, trust the process. It will all work out.”
“So you keep saying.”
“It’s true,” Dad replies. “I mean look at your mother and I. We’re the perfect example.”
Marie and I pull matching gross-out faces.
“Yeah, yeah, Dad,” I say. “We’re all very impressed you and Mom still bone at your age-”
“RYAN!” Mom exclaims, at the same time Marie dissolves into giggles.
“Right,” Dad says, looking flustered. “You two better get going. You’ll be late for school.”
“School,” I mutter.
School is the last place I ever want to be.
I’m a straight-A student. Top of my class thanks to my photographic wolf memory. But the problem is I don’t care about school.
I should care about school.
But I don’t.
Because the sad truth is, being smart doesn’t exactly feature in my predetermined destiny.
Alpha likes his wolf males strong and handy, not smart and nerdy.
His wolf females, on the other hand, he likes to be fertile and submissive.
In fact, the photograph of a very fertile female is probably waiting for me in that dreaded gold-wrapped gift I'm ignoring upstairs. A fertile female with wide child-bearing hips.
I will look later.
For today, I just want to enjoy being a normal eighteen-year-old.
It’s just weird to think that somewhere out there, my future wife has woken to the same gold package.
I can't help but wonder what she’s thinking...