I awoke to a blood-curdling scream that shook me from an exhausted sleep and sent my heart into a violent flutter. Jerking into sitting position I threw my hand up instinctively to block the sun from my eyes, shielding them from the intense glare streaming in the living room windows. It was too early. I could feel it by the way my body refused to move properly. Everything ached and creaked as I tried to move, regaining a little of my bearings from the fuzzy hold of slumber. I found myself on the couch with no memory of falling asleep downstairs. From the time I left school to this morning was all a blur. Not that I cared enough to remember in my groggy state.
Wonderful, I groaned at the loud sound of my back cracking at the slightest movement.
The couch in the living room wasn’t made for sleeping, the old thing stiff and antique looking. Used more for looks and an uncomfortable place to offer guests to sit. I was going to be sore all day now.
“AHHHHHHH! You have a call,” a female voice yelled, causing my heart to skip a beat or two.
It took a second for the sudden fright to fade as I noticed my cell phone, that was now dancing and rumbling across the mahogany coffee table. That’s where the scream was coming from.
“David,” I growled.
That jerk boyfriend of mine liked to play jokes, so this was typical David. For him changing my ringtone to some outrageous, random, and oftentimes inappropriate alert was a good time. Last week at lunch he turned up the volume without my knowing. Then later in the afternoon while taking a history test, the jerk called me. The ringtone of the day was a series of farting noises to which the class respond with a roar of laughter, and I ended up with detention.
Still, despite all his practical and embarrassing jokes, David always did make it better. After I told him what his stunt landed me with, David talked to our history teacher, who was also his football coach. In the end I got no detention and David willingly ran extra drills to appease him. He could be a stand-up guy, but he loved to play pranks.
Glancing at the screen through puffy eyes, I saw his name flash across the screen as another scream yelled out of the phone.
“Screw you,” I said to his flashing name on the phone before pressing ignore.
He wasn’t getting off easy for this one or for leaving me last night. I would get him back, but later.
Eight a.m. the clock on the phone screen glared, who calls at eight a.m.? It was way too early on a Saturday morning to deal with him. All my friends, David included, knew I wasn’t a morning person. Anything before ten could wait.
Stretching out my body, I noticed more than before all the aches, this couch really was awful. My one ankle was sore and my knees were tight for some reason. That’s what I got for sleeping on the old thing.
Lingering for a moment I looked around the house, empty like it always was. My mother worked long days, even weekends in the next town over. She often left hours before I woke up for school and took my little brother with her. They wouldn’t return until late in the evening when I had already fallen asleep, sometimes I wondered if she even came home at all. It was normal for me not to see her or my brother for weeks and sometimes even months.
This morning there was no wondering if they had returned home at some strange hour, they wouldn’t be coming home. Mom was on another one of her business trips, three weeks this time. At least she was nice enough to leave a note, as she often didn’t. Not that it mattered. My mother could disappear and I wouldn’t notice at all. A sad fact but true. It should have depressed me, but after years of living like this it became normal.
So long as we didn’t have to move again I didn’t care. We’d been in Portstown for a year and a half, and it was the longest we had ever stayed in one place. Once my father passed away, right after I turned eleven, my mother started this strange habit of constantly moving us around. Every three to seven months we were in a new location. I didn’t understand it, and after being yelled at one too many times for asking I stopped.
Instead I reasoned it out to be her strange way of handling my father’s death. That her grief kept us from having a real settled location, but there was more than just the moving. Shortly after the accident that took my father she became distant toward me—even cold at times. It wasn’t until I was about fourteen that I understood her behavior. It hit me one day while I was sitting alone in our apartment watching a young girl playing with her family outside in the snow.
My mother blamed me, maybe even hated me because I survived the crash he hadn’t...it didn’t matter.
She could be cold and distant to me all she wanted. So long as I had a place to live I wouldn’t complain. Besides, next year I would be in college, engrossed in studies. No time to think about things I couldn’t change.
Pulling myself to a stand I staggered into the kitchen, my head dazed with sleep. My body protested the slightest movement. This is how I felt after one of Coach Powell’s track boot camps.
What’s wrong with me this morning?
My phone screamed again. The sudden rush of surprise threw my heart into my throat and I jumped, nearly dropping the phone. I would kill him—slaughter that hot young football player in his bed while he slept.
Pushing ignore once again and discarding the phone on the breakfast bar, I slipped out of my jacket and hung it on one of the chairs, taking notice right away to the pile of mail on the counter. On the top of the stack was the plain brown envelope with bright blue writing that read, ‘JJ Morris’. This strange envelope had been appearing every month since the time I was little, never any return address or postage marks. Nothing on it except my name written out in powerful, bold, sweeping letters. It didn’t matter where my mother moved us, without fail that package appeared and always with the same contents.
Four thousand dollars, all in twenties.
The first time this mysterious envelope appeared was after my eleventh birthday and our first move. My mother came in from the yard where she had been unloading boxes and dropped the envelope in front of me.
“Do whatever you want with it,” she said disappearing back into the yard.
With eager excitement I opened the envelope, thinking it was some kind of belated gift from my mom, but when I saw what was inside I doubted she was the gifter. My mother wasn’t the extravagant gifting type, and she would never give me money. Not this much at least. There was no comprehending the amount of money that lay in my lap, not at my age. All those twenties made me feel like the richest person in the world. Some kind of millionaire who could spend all they wanted without a thought or care. Four thousand was a lot for anyone, especially an eleven-year-old.
I obsessed for days over what to buy with it, in the end I spent half the money before the next month’s package arrived. After a few more months of receiving the money my mother stopped coming home every night, and buying food for the house. I learned very fast how to take care of myself and that money helped a lot.
I never asked where it had come from or why it was addressed to JJ That was a name my father used to call me. A special nickname between us. When my mother first told me we were moving—leaving the house we had all lived in together I acted upset, but I was really happy. In a new place, with new people, I could stop anyone from calling me JJ I hated that name now and never wanted to hear it again unless it was my father calling me to come sit on his lap as he read to me. The next school year when I started in a new place I introduced myself as Joey. The only time the name JJ came up was when the little brown envelope came every month. It was both a joy and awful heart-aching reminder.
Confirming the little brown package contained the standard four thousand, I tucked it away in my back pocket before heading over to the sink. Turning on the cold tap, I waited until I was sure it was just about the temperature of ice before splashing it on my face. Sharp awareness stung me awake as the water hit, clearing some of the haze. My body sparked to life for a moment but it didn’t last, another splash should do it.
Gathering handful of water, I readied to splash myself.
“AHHHHHHHHHHH! You have a call,” that damn thing yelled again, causing me to jump.
For Christ’s sake!
Leaving the sink, I snatched the phone off the counter. My face was dripping wet as I answered with an annoyed hiss, “What?”
I knew who it was, no need to spare him my rage.
“Did you hear about Katie?” David answered back with excitement, ignoring my clear aggravation.
His reply sent me over the edge, I could feel the anger boiling. I was so testy this morning.
“I got home just fine last night. Don’t worry,” I said back, biting my tongue to keep from completely losing it. “How was your party that was so much more important than seeing your girlfriend got home okay?”
“Oh baby, I’m so sorry,” he apologized in that sweet boyfriend voice of his. “I thought you said Marty was going to take you home... I’m such a jerk. Babe, please forgive me.”
I could imagine him doing that sweet pout thing he did when in trouble, those big brown eyes giving the puppy dog look. It was effective in person, but over the phone it wasn’t working. He was going to pay.
“You’re going to make this up to me,” I demanded.
“Of course I will. You know I’m good for it.”
I rolled my eyes at the slick retort. David Taylor was a smooth guy and he knew it. He could charm his way into or out of anything he wanted, and the ladies lined up for him while the guys idolized him. It didn’t matter that he was a second-rate football player on a team that hadn’t won a game in decades. David was still one of the guys to be in school. A top-shelf prize and I was envied for landing him.
“Did you hear about Katie?!” he asked again with glee. The charm had fallen from his voice, and now it was right to business.
“No,” I replied in a defeated tone. “What rumor do you have for me today?”
Katherine Marsh was one of the most hated girls in school, a teacher’s pet who took all the college level classes I did. Top of the class, played four instruments in the band, head of the glee club, lead vocalist in the E-Sharps singing program, and she still had time to date one of the hotties in school, Jacob Campbell.
Katie and I shared an unspoken rivalry. Where she was top of the class, I was second. I skipped a grade in middle school. She skipped two, making her almost sixteen. The youngest in our senior class, where I was sixteen ready to turn seventeen in another two months. The girl was always one step ahead of me. It was both annoying and encouraging. Having someone to beat, a target goal to keep me focused while all my friends tried to discourage my excessive studying. I was grateful to Katie for that, but I would never tell her. In fact, we never even spoke to each other. It was forbidden.
Marty, my bestfriend and leader of our little group of friends, also had a rivalry with Katie. This rivalry was more like a vendetta, a brutal shunning for the silliest reason. As I heard it Marty had asked Jacob, Katie’s boyfriend, out in the sixth grade. He turned her down, dooming any other girl who would agree to go out with him, which happened to be Katie. For years Marty made it her life’s goal to destroy Katie. I didn’t really approve but I went along with her rules. For the most part.
The first of which was no conversation with her. The other rules were less strict and included laughing at Katie as she walked by. Spreading rumors, making her life difficult in general. I never followed those rules, and would often tell Marty to ease off. Not that she listened.
Within a year Katie lost all her friends and no one talked to her but Jacob. Despite it all she still managed to be top of the class. I was rather impressed and respected Katie for her struggles.
Lately, I thought Marty had given up on torturing the poor girl but it would seem David had a new rumor to spread. That was the last thing I wanted to deal with right now. I hated the rumors and all the gossip, but if Marty didn’t get her way she was a brat. I loved her, but she really could be impossible and childish.
Becoming annoyed with the silence from the other end of the phone, I huffed, feeling the beginnings of a headache starting in my temples.
This was going to be such a long day.
“She’s dead!” David announced with a little too much delight.
“You guys are getting out of control with this vengeance thing—”
“Joey, it isn’t a joke.”
David’s tone grew more serious, and the delight that I thought I had heard before was gone. Maybe I was hearing him wrong.
“She was attacked last night. It’s serious.”
The shocking reality that someone I knew died hit me. Granted, I wasn’t Katie’s friend, but it still hit hard. The idea that this person was here one second and gone the next would strike anyone deep.
“What happened?” I didn’t really want to know but it seemed natural to ask.
“Don’t have the full details yet, but I heard it was gruesome.”
The grave tone he was using sent a shiver through my body. Possibilities of how Katie met her end raced through my mind.
I hope it wasn’t an accident.
That was the last thing I needed, some reminder of how I lost my father.
“Some kind of animal attack…they think a dog or wolf—”
The warmth drained from my body and I felt dizzy. David’s voice drifted off as he said something about blood, and parts of her scattered across the train bridge. The bridge I had been so close to on the tracks.
Was it all real?
“No...” I whispered to myself.
I forgot it all the second I woke, never giving last night a thought. It was some type of dream that had been lost in my memory, but was now returning. Every terror-filled moment came back to me with clear detail. That awful murderous red glare of that black wolf-thing taunted me as I clenched my eyes shut, my knees shaking under the weight of the regained memory.
It couldn’t have been real, things like that didn’t happen to people like me. They didn’t happen in towns like this and it was too well-scripted, as if pulled from a horror movie.
No, I don’t believe any of it…it wasn’t real. I can prove it.
Peeking out the kitchen and down the hallway to the front door, I hoped to find some evidence that last night never happened. My chest tightened as I stared down the hall, the bright morning sunlight shining through the gap where the brass lock was once fastened on the front door. Splinters of wood and bits of metal littered the entrance and the world dropped out from under me.
I fell to the floor like the night before, but this time no tears came. I was too paralyzed. The realization of how close to death I had come was more real, knowing that another had suffered what could have been my fate.
Clenching my eyes shut, I still refused to believe it completely. I didn’t want to know, I didn’t want to believe.
Shaking my head with refusal, I lost all ability to deny what happened when my eyes settled on the jacket I had been wearing. Bright crimson covered the one sleeve and I knew right to my twisting gut it was all real.