Wet hair dripping beads of water down my back to the floor, I stand before the bathroom mirror. My hand wipes a swath of steam from the slick surface, revealing my mist framed reflection. Janelle tells me I’m pretty, but I don’t believe her. My eyes disturb people. Fritz says they’re cool, that he wishes he had yellow eyes. What a stupid thing to want, eyes like mine; sunlight blinds me. Even with the curtains drawn tight, the rays of light bleeding past the bottom edge sear them.
“Sylvie?” calls a feminine voice from the other side of my hotel room door.
My ears prick at the sound of Janelle calling my name, a name I have not had cause to use for nearly ten years. Knuckles rap on the cheap, thin wood.
“What?” I bark at high volume.
“S’il vous plaît, we have little time.” The floor creaks under her shifting feet, he accented voice heavy with worry. “Are you done?”
“Almost,” I say after ten long seconds. The words struggle back from memory, but it gets easier to recall all the time.
I stare at the mirror again and sigh. Sighing. Something a wolf would never do. A wolf would dip its head and curve its spine, pointing its tail to the ground. But humans sigh, and I’m human—more or less. Without joy I pick up the eyeliner and apply it like Janelle taught me. The first time I tried it got in my eyes and made them tear up, but Janelle made me keep trying until I got it right. The blush comes next. I apply it with a soft brush, the bristles sweeping along my skin like the fluttering of a butterfly’s wing. Janelle says blush makes you pretty. It makes my face feel dirty. Once I add a bit of lipstick, one might not even notice my pronounced jaw muscles and ivory white, sharp teeth. Since putting make up on my body would be impractical, I’ve covered almost every inch of it. You can’t see my lean, muscled form beneath the hooded sweatshirt and black jeans. My hands are still the long, bony, taloned things they have ever been, though, and they seem ghastly jutting out from my sleeves.
“Sylvie?” The knock comes again, more insistent. Growling, I reach for the knob and fling the door open.
I blink in the brighter light. Wade has thrown the curtains of our suite wide open, to help him as he reconstructs the massive pile of shredded paper on the floor. He’s not much to look at, with his thick eyeglasses and thin build, but he’s a trained soldier. Appealing light brown hair curls about his head like a fuzzy blanket. I grin at the memory of how he’d reacted when I tried to run my hands through it. Janelle had to take me aside and explain that it’s just not appropriate to touch people without their permission. This was hard to swallow, because wolves touch each other all the time; Nips, snuffles, even running with the wind side by side, like humans hold hands. I turn my gaze from Wade before he notices me. I make him uncomfortable. The way he sweats, pants, and licks his lips around me led me to believe he had different intentions at first.
Not the first time I’ve made a mistake since coming out of the woods.
Nearby, Wade’s friend Fritz stirs something in a bowl. My nose tells me it’s pancake batter. Fritz. The Alpha, the leader of our pack, though he’d never say so himself. He’s thicker than Wade, quick with a smile and quicker with the knife he always keeps sheathed at the small of his back. His mostly bare scalp bears a strip down the center, something called a mohawk. According to Wade, mohawks are dead, but I can’t fathom how hair can be dead when it never lived in the first place. I watch the corded muscles knot and twist in his arms as he stirs the batter.
“Your first batch got cold, so I’m making you some new ones.” He indicates the counter that borders our suite’s kitchenette. A plate of pancakes sits there, along with a dozen links of sausage and a glass of milk. My nose wrinkles at the smell of the burned meat on the table.
“You cooked it.” I sit down and pick at one of the sausage links, lips curling back from my sharp teeth.
“Sylvie,” Janelle says as she comes up behind me “we’ve talked about this. Human girls eat cooked food.”
She puts her hands on my shoulders and squeezes gently. I turn to face her, my sour expression making her laugh for some reason. Janelle stands taller than I, with thick, wavy black hair that shimmers if the light catches it right. The soft curves and pretty face make me feel ugly. Her lips are thick and full where mine are thin, and her eyes are a normal, but beautiful, shade of green. Even her voice sounds nicer than mine, though she speaks with a funny accent Fritz calls French. It’s no wonder he prefers her to me.
“I can go down to the Bordello’s in town and get her some raw venison,” Fritz says.
Janelle rolls her eyes and sighs while her fingers continue to caress my shoulders.
“You’re not helping, Fitzgerald,” she says.
“Sorry.” Fritz drizzles the batter onto the skillet with a steaming hiss. I try one of the greasy sausages and force it down. It’s soft and spongy, like most cooked meat. I prefer ripping my meals right off the bone, warm blood splashing down my throat while my pack brothers and sisters snarl and bicker over the scraps. I did not lead the pack—one must be able to mate to be an Alpha—but I was never challenged for my portion of the kill.
My stomach gurgles loudly as Fritz places a stack of steaming pancakes piled four high before me. They’re not meat, but pancakes are something humans—we—eat that I actually like. Especially with butter and syrup drowning the sweet bread until it’s a swampy mess.
“Sylvie, dear,” Janelle says, sitting beside me “you can’t just live on pancakes.”
“Why not?” I say between sticky bites.
“Well,” Janelle says, biting her lower lip while she thinks. “They lack the proper nutrition.”
I snort, and go back to my food. Snorting. Something both wolves and people do when they’re annoyed. I’m still having trouble with words like nutrition. Supposedly nutrition means some food is better than others, but I already know that. You don’t eat meat that’s been dead too long, or drink filthy, brackish water. Sometimes I think Janelle keeps making things up just to confuse me, to make sure that she remains the Alpha female. Then I’m no threat to her.
I hear Wade cursing from the living room, using some of the cruder words that I find it easiest to remember. When I say them, Janelle sighs and tells me a young lady should speak better, but when Wade and Fritz say them I guess it’s okay. Maybe because they’re men? Something about that really rankles me, and I don’t know exactly why. Or perhaps it’s because they’re older. I’m seventeen now, or so I’m told since I don’t even remember my birthday, and it seems that when you’re seventeen you aren’t allowed to do a whole lot.
Wade tosses down a wad of paper in disgust and stomps into the kitchen. Fritz offers him a glass of juice which he snatches and drains in seconds, an orange droplet running down his chin.
“Tough going, buddy?” Fritz says with a grin.
“It’s impossible, if that’s what you’re asking!” Wade sits on the other side of Janelle. “I don’t even know if those files have anything useful to begin with. It could be a huge waste of time!”
“But we have to try, non?” Janelle twists in her chair to stare at the waist-high tangled mess of paper. “The Bildeburgs had been using that office for over a decade. If there were nothing to hide, why shred it all?”
I scrunch up my face at the mention of the Bills.
“If the Bildeburgs are so bad,” I say around a mouthful “why don’t the police just go and arrest them? That’s what police do, right? Arrest bad guys?”
Fritz laughs, while Wade and Janelle exchange glances that seem a bit pitying.
“It’s not that simple, Sylvie,” Wade says. “You see, a lot of the people in charge of the police are in the Bildeburg group.”
“They have a lot of political clout,” Janelle says, drawing my crimson gaze to her. She taps her finger on the counter for a moment before going on. “That means they have a lot of power.”
“I know what politics are. Fritz told me all about them.”
“Oh, did he now?” Janelle swallows, gives Fritz a dark look, and then smiles at me. “What did he say about politics, sweetie?”
I take a deep breath.
“He says that politicians like the President and Congress are a bunch of idiots who spend all their time on their knees before lobbyists su-”
He winces as Janelle scowls at him. Spreading his hands wide, he shrugs.
“I just call it like I see it,” he says with a small grin.
“Why do I even bother?” she says, sighing.
Janelle examines the clock on the wall. All three of them have been complaining about how they had to get rid of their ‘cells.’ Apparently a cell is something like the phone on the nightstand, but better. They had to get rid of the cells, because somehow the Bills can figure out where you are if you have one. Her hand goes before her mouth and she stands up with a start.
“Sacre Merde! It’s ten minutes till nine! Sylvie is going to be late for school.”
Wade puts down his fork and looks at her as if she’s not too smart.
“This isn’t going to work, you know.” His blue eyes dart to mine for a moment. “She’ll never be able to fit in.”
“Encouraging, much?” Fritz says, his nostrils flaring so widely his mustache is wriggling. He’s speaking sarcastically, which he does a lot. I decide Fritz is trying to stand up for me.
That’s something else I can’t get used to. Wolves stand up for the whole pack, not for individual members. Fritz treats me like he’s shown me throat, like I’m the Alpha instead of him. Janelle calls it being nice, and I have dim memories of singing songs about being a nice person in the orphanage. There are other memories too, of how we should all be thankful to a half naked man hanging on a letter T. I asked a nun once why he didn’t just get off of it, and she said he was nailed to it. I wanted to know why if he was all-powerful he just let it happen, but the answer she gave didn’t make any sense. Something about how he’d died for my sins.
I’m not sure what my sins are, but I don’t think they’ve caused me any problems yet.
I’m drawn back to the now by the argument. These three fight with their words. A lot.
“Don’t you understand what’s going to happen?” Wade asks, nose twitching. “The other kids will call her a retard the first time she acts funny.”
“That,” Janelle says with a hiss, eyes slitted and full of danger “is NOT a nice word, and hardly one I wish Sylvie to learn or use.”
“I’m more worried about the boys,” Fritz says, a toothy smile spread wide beneath his mustache. “She’ll have to fight them off with a stick.”
“Why would I need a stick?” I ask, mouth twisting into a frown. “I have teeth and claws, and you’ve been showing me Bruise Lee moves.”
All three of them stop talking and stare sheepishly in my direction. I think they forgot I was standing there, listening.
“See what I mean?” Wade says, dropping his hands into his lap. “She’s going to get picked on.”
“The boys aren’t going to attack you, Sylvie dear,” Janelle says, pursing her lips and fixing me with a warm gaze. “It’s just a figure of speech, like ‘raining cats and dogs.’”
I nod, mind going back to the time I’d heard her say that phrase.
“This is the only shot we have, Wade,” Fritz says, slapping his friend on the shoulder. “I know you’re just worried that Sylvie will have a rough go of things, but you need to chill!”
I snort, nostrils flaring as I regard Wade. He’s more worried about himself than me, I’m sure of it.
Wade sighs and shakes his head. His nose wrinkles and he gestures at me.
“Weren’t you going to do something about the way her hands look?” he asks.
“Of course,” she replies.
Janelle slips metal rings and fingerless gloves on my hands to try and conceal their strange appearance. Each of my fingers has an extra joint, but I think it’s the nails that makes her uneasy. When they first found me in the woods, Janelle thought my nails were just ragged and long with neglect. She went through two pair of clippers and one pair of scissors before using a metal file to get them as short as they are now. They’re still long and pointy, but they look even at least.
“”Viola,” Janelle says, displaying my hands for Fritz and Wade.
“Not bad,” Fritz says.
“What about her claws?” Wade sniffs, shaking his head. He does that a lot where I’m concerned.
“Oh ye of little faith,” Janelle says, producing a vial of red glossy liquid.
“I hate that stuff,” I say.
Janelle cocks an eyebrow, smiling gently.
“It stinks,” I say.
“Oui,” she says “polish does not smell very good, but it’s a necessary evil.”
“Necessary evil?” I try the words out on my tongue. My speech has grown a lot better. I can remember many of the words I used to know, and have even learned new ones. “Isn’t evil the same as bad? Do you really need to be bad, sometimes?”
“Uh,” Janelle scans the faces of our companions, maybe hoping they’ll be able to provide me with an explanation. Wade’s shoulders slump and he turns to stare into his coffee. Fritz scratches the back of his head and stares out the window. Janelle sighs. “We are running late anyway.”
“But you never answered my question,” I say, not moving.
“I need to think about it, Sylvie dear. Just get your backpack, please, so we may be on our way.”
“What about her nails?” Fritz always calls my claws nails. I think he’s trying to make me think more like a human.
“She can paint them on the way. I showed her how.”
My ringed hand snatches up the backpack. It’s made of a clear mesh, as per the school rules, so you can see the notebooks, folders, pens and pencils. With a start I turn toward Janelle, panic rising in my voice.
“Where’s my lunch? You didn’t give me anything to eat!”
“I have something better.” Janelle pushes me out the door, though I’m certain she’s not strong enough to move me unless I let her. Wade and Fritz together couldn’t move me. We approach Janelle’s car, a shiny, smooth red contoured thing. I can’t resist running my hand along the glossy surface, watching a distorted reflection of a girl with yellow eyes staring back at me. Janelle tsks, showing her disapproval the way humans do.
Wolves are much less subtle.
“Don’t scratch the paint, Sylvie dear,” she says.
“I won’t,” I say.
Once I am inside and have buckled my seat belt, I stare hard at Janelle. Sometimes she doesn’t really listen to me, even though she’s supposed to. I want to make sure this isn’t one of those times.
“I don’t have a lunch yet.”
“Oh.” Janelle digs in her elegant little black purse. “Honestly, you’re so much like a boy sometimes. Always thinking about your stomach.”
“I don’t like being hungry.” When I was with the pack, I took so much of our kills that I was nearly driven away. If I had been an actual wolf, I may have been able to claim the Alpha rank. It wouldn’t work, though, as Alphas have to breed and even when I lifted my tail to my pack brothers all they did was sniff and bustle off.
My mind snaps back to now when Janelle finds what she’s been looking for and hands it to me. I’ve really become more human, after all, with the way my mind drifts forward and back in time.
“What’s this?” I stare at the tiny plastic card in my clawed hands. It has writing on it, and my picture. Reading has come back to me bit by bit. I remembered how to speak much better than I can remember the little blots on a page that represent sounds and things. I take my time, and I can sense Janelle’s amusement as my lips move. It’s a habit I can’t seem to break. The card has the school name written in large maroon letters across the top. Riverforks Township High School. Under, in smaller letters, it says Cafeteria Meal Card. I don’t think I’m supposed to eat this, especially after I take a long whiff and run my tongue along its edge.
“I can’t eat this.”
Janelle laughs, and I feel my face stretch into something Fritz calls a scowl. I know she’s my friend, but does she have to laugh so hard every time I mess something up?
“I’m sorry, Sylvie,” she says, noticing my sour mood. “This card is not your lunch, you use it to pay for your lunch.”
I squint down at the card, ignoring Janelle as she implores me to put on my nail polish. As we travel on the narrow mountain road, I consider what she said. Paying I’m familiar with. In the woods, you earn your food by the swiftness of your feet and the strength of your jaws. Humans use little slips of paper and plastic, so they don’t have to run down their dinner. They just go into a restaurant or grocery store and get it, simple as that. Apparently, money doesn’t grow on trees, as Wade says, but when I ask Janelle how I can get some she smiles and pats my head and remarks on how innocent I am.
When we’re less than five minutes away from school I consent to put on my nail polish. I try to breathe through my mouth so I don’t have to smell it, but I can still taste it on my tongue. My nose is more sensitive than normal people’s, I get that, but you’d think it would bother Janelle a little more than it does. It’s an awkward feeling, holding your hands out with your fingers spread while the glossy paint dries. Janelle implores me not to get it on her upholstery.
We finally descend from the high hills and come upon the town of Riverforks. Fritz calls it a bump in the road, but it’s far bigger than a bump. I read the sign as we pass. Numbers are easier than words for me. Population 2300. I guess there must be much bigger towns than this one. I think I can remember being in one, with buildings that towered over the tallest tree.
I shake my head. I don’t like to think about things that happened before. Especially before I went to the woods and joined the pack, when I had to live in a smelly brick building stuffed with children nobody wanted.
“Janelle,” I say, pulling her out of whatever before or later she was lost in. Her eyes meet mine, which in wolves could be a challenge, but humans look each other in the eye when they talk. It’s part of being a good listener, something else I’m not very good at even though my ears work really well. “You said my father was in the Bildeburg group. What’s he like?”
Janelle’s eyes seem far away, and I smell the stink of fear in her sweat.
“Honey,” she says with a sigh, laying a hand on my shoulder “that’s a complicated issue. We’ll talk more about it after school.”
I snort. Before Janelle can admonish me for the unladylike act, I go into an argument that has failed for the past week.
“Why do I have to go to school? If you think this Ochiba person is so bad, why don’t we just go and kill him?”
Janelle’s jaw sets hard, her fear replaced by anger.
“Sylvie, you should not be so willing and eager to kill people.”
“Because...” she sighs again. “Because when you kill someone, you’re taking away everything they have, and everything they’re ever going to have.”
My nose wrinkles and a low growl escapes my throat.
“I don’t understand. Don’t understand why I have to go to school, either.”
“We’ve been over this, Sylvie dear. And over it and over it—but that’s neither here nor there. Ochiba has definitely worked for the Bills before. Our evidence says that he’s somehow connected to the Grand Design. You do want to stop the Grand Design, don’t you?”
I suppress a shudder, since Janelle seems upset already. I can’t quite wrap my mind around The Grand Design, though it chills me like a winter wind. The Bills want to kill people, lots of people—most of them, in fact. It has something to do with their vision of Utopia, where no one has to be hungry or cold and everyone lives peacefully with each other. Even I know enough about the world of man to figure out such a thing would never work. Some people are only happy when they’re being unkind.
Like the people we’re supposed to stop, the Bildeburgs.
For a moment, I panic as we reach the hairpin drive in front of the school. Janelle curses about how late I’m going to be and shoves me on the shoulder when I’m reluctant to leave. I realize that for the first time in months, I’m not going to have Fritz, or Janelle, or even Wade with me. I have to face the school alone.
As soon as I’m out of the car, Janelle says bye and hits the gas. Maybe she was afraid I’d try to get back inside. I would have if given the chance. Forcing myself to be calm, to be centered, as Fritz says when he’s teaching me how to fight like a human, my breathing slows and my hands unclench.
I’ve been to the school before. Three days ago Janelle and I had come to Riverforks to register me for classes…
“Stop fidgeting, Sylvie,” Janelle says, pursing her lips.
I shift in the uncomfortable steel chair next to hers, balling my hands into fists on my lap. This place, the principal’s office, is overwhelming. The scents of hundreds of different people mingle here, along with an acrid smell I place as cigarette smoke, and the lights overhead buzz so terribly I barely notice how bright they are.
“I don’t like this place,” I say, staring at her from behind a curly white lock. “I have to get out of here-”
I start to rise, legs flexing as I unfold from the chair, but Janelle grabs my wrist tightly. I could break her grip—not to mention her wrist—but Janelle is my friend, so I pause.
“Sylvie,” she says quietly “please! Sit down!”
The secretary, a rotund woman with a mop of orange hair, glances up from her computer screen and fixes us with a suspicious pout. I meet her gaze and hold it until she swallows and looks away, sweat breaking out on her brow.
“Fine,” I say, plopping back down in the hard metal seat.
“I’m sure this won’t take long,” she said. “We can go for a walk in the woods later if you want.”
“You walk too slow,” I say. “It’s no fun with you around.”
“Well, okay,” Janelle says, laughing a bit though nothing’s funny. “You can go for a walk by yourself, then.”
I stare up at a picture of an old man in funny clothes. George Washington, I think that’s his name. The words beneath the picture swim before my eyes, and I give up on reading them.
“So this Principal White,” I say, trying to keep the growl out of my voice “he’s the Alpha?”
Janelle chuckles and smooths my hair away from my eyes.
“So to speak,” she says. “He’s in charge of the school. Before you start going here, he has to say it’s okay.”
“I could just challenge him,” I say. “He’s probably soft and weak like all humans.”
Janelle clamps her mouth shut and tries to smile, squeezing my hand tightly while she glances up at the secretary.
“Shh,” she says softly so the secretary won’t hear. “Remember, you’re a human, too.”
My head perks up at the sound of heavy footsteps. The adjacent door swings open and a large man with brown skin and a shaved head steps halfway out.
“Ms. Racine?” he says, looking at Janelle as if I’m not sitting there, too.
“Yes,” Janelle says, standing up and straightening her green skirt. “Nice to meet you in person.”
They shake hands while I take in this man. He’s large, probably heavier than a full grown buck, dressed in a dark suit with shiny buttons which catch the light and gleam like stars. There’s cigarette smoke and coffee on his breath. His eyes run up and down Janelle’s body, and I can tell he’s thinking of mating with her.
He hides it well, though, and invites her into his office. Janelle smiles, but her voice strains when she speaks.
“Come, Sylvie dear,” she says. For a moment I consider staying put, but her sweat smells of fear. Fear that I will embarrass her again.
“Okay,” I say, rising to my feet. I’m saying okay a lot these days, since it seems to make people stop talking to me, at least for awhile.
Janelle ushers me in before her, but I’m stopped by the wall of humanity that is Principal White. He sticks his hand out, fingers spread, and smiles.
“Nice to meet you, Sylvie,” he says.
Awkwardly, I clasp his hand in my own, being sure not to squeeze too hard and hurt him. I must not be doing very well, though, because he grimaces and withdraws his hand quickly.
“That’s quite a grip your daughter has, Ms. Racine,” Principal White says. I decide that I like his voice, a deep rich sound that rolls like thunder with none of the violence.
“Indeed,” Janelle says. For a fraction of a second, a glower crosses her pretty face, and I know I’ve messed up again.
Principal White walks behind a wide metal desk and sits down heavily in a padded chair. He motions to two seats covered with red and black padding on the opposite side.
“Please be seated,” he says.
“Thank you,” Janelle says, settling into her seat. Not wanting to disappoint her, I quickly sit down in the other chair.
“Now,” Principal White says, shuffling some papers on his desk. “I don’t need proof of residency yet, as you’re still looking for an apartment, but I do need Sylvie’s birth certificate and a record of her shots.”
“Shots?” I say, feeling the blood drain from my face. “I don’t like being shot.”
Principal White’s bushy brows climb his forehead, the eyes beneath going wide.
“You don’t like being...shot?” he asks.
“She means getting shots,” Janelle says smoothly, putting her hand on my forearm—a signal we worked out in advance, an indication that I need to close my mouth and let her speak so I don’t blow our cover.
“Of course,” Principal White says with a laugh. “I never cease to be amazed at the creativity of our student body.”
He clears his throat and taps a fat finger on the desk.
“Ah, you DO have those records, right?” he asks.
“Of course,” Janelle says, opening her briefcase and taking out a blank piece of paper. She meets White’s gaze, and her eyes are intense, like a wolf trying to stare down a rival before the snarling and snapping starts. “This should take care of everything.”
Principal White takes the piece of paper, which rustles in the breeze from the overhead vent, but his eyes are locked on Janelle’s. His smile drains from his face, mouth gone slack like a winded buck. He stares at the paper for a long moment.
“This takes care of everything,” he says, filing the blank page in his desk. When he glances up at us, his smile comes back and Janelle’s eyes are back to being soft and pretty.
“Good,” Janelle says, rising to her feet. After a few seconds I get up as well. Principal White shakes both of our hands again, clasping mine in both of his before releasing it.
“Welcome to our family, Sylvie,” he says genially. I nod, still unsure of what just happened. On our way back to Janelle’s car, I press her for details.
“That was just a blank piece of-” I say.
“Shh!” Janelle says, her eyes hard but her smile wide. “Do not speak of it until we are in the car, non?”
I close my mouth and wait, though my insides roil with questions. When we are inside her car, I pester her again.
“Sylvie my dear,” she says, “you are not the only one who was...gifted...by the Bildeburg group.”
My lip curls, my nose wrinkles and I’m about to demand more of an explanation when she speaks again.
“Your gifts are physical,” she says “speed, strength, fast healing. My gift is mental. I can hear what people are thinking, and make them see things that are not there.”
I start to snort, but stop. My pulse races and I squeeze the armrest so tightly I dig furrows in the leather.
“You used it on me,” I say glumly.
Janelle sighs as she watches the road ahead.
“Yes,” she says “I did.”
“I thought you were my friend,” I say, my voice rising in volume “or did you make me think that, too?”
“Sylvie,” Janelle says, glancing sharply at me “I had no choice! You were feral when we first found you, savage. You were about to gut me like one of those deer you used to eat!”
I close my mouth and my mind goes back to the first time we met. It’s true, I was about to kill her, and Wade and Fritz too.
“Well,” I say, staring out the side window and watching the skeletal trees flash past “don’t do it again.”
“I will not,” Janelle says. “I promise.”
She chuckles and I turn my head back in her direction.
“What’s funny?” I demand.
“It’s not like your mind is easy to push, anyway,” Janelle says with a grin. “It took more effort than I would have possibly imagined just to get you to listen for a few minutes!”
“Good,” I said, and settled into my seat.
The school has a simple layout, with the faculty offices near the hairpin and the classroom buildings spreading out behind it. Navigating a dense forest where one tree looks much like another can be tricky, and you have to rely on your other senses to get you around. The salty smell from a bead of saliva left on a leaf by panting prey, or the sound of twigs snapping as a predator closes in. Buildings that look quite different, and even have their names printed on the entrance? Piece of cake, as Fritz would say.
Though I don’t much care for cake.
So I dig the scrap of paper with my schedule out of my pocket, unfold it, and begin my first day of school.