Wolf's Lullaby

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Guilty as charged

PHILIP

No, no, no. You’re ok. You’re going to be ok. Please be ok.

I cupped her cheeks, hands quivering, “T-T Tara…” I stuttered. Was that my voice? It sounded way too shrill and foreign. Her eyebrows drew together, and she took a deep, shuddering breath. A small, soft hand wrapped around my wrist, squeezing lightly, and she nuzzled into my palm, her face and body relaxing, a relieved sigh leaving her. Her hand left mine, its warmth lingering on my skin, seeming to spread throughout my body as her breathing evened out, and she smacked her lips.

She slept soundly. Her heart beat irregularly... No, wait... that was mine. Hers was slow and steady. Mine had a freaking rave party. What the heck just happened?

Slumping down on the coffee table next to her, careful not to pull my palm from the confines of the pillow and her cheek still leaning into it so I don’t disturb her, I let out a heavy sigh. With that breath, whole of my strength sapped away and my shoulders sagged.

An incredulous laugh spilled out of me.

She was fine.

Her chest rose and fell at regular intervals, pulse strong. Her breath tickled the skin of my palm, sending little tingles up my arm. I smoothed a lock of hair from her temple with my free hand. Soft, like the rest of her. She looked so… fragile. I didn’t know how, but I knew with certainty about the immense strength lying beneath. Still…

An instinct that I have ever felt this strongly only for Theo flared to life as I watched her.

Protect.

Gods, I lost my shit. Ridiculous. Just moments ago, I was ready to throttle her…

My gaze wandered back to the broken shards and clay on the floor. The tightness in my chest returned, threatening to take over again. So, I shoveled more dirt over the grief peaking through its resting place and shoved it all back down. I couldn’t deal with it. I had enough for the day.

In my zoned out state, I barely registered the chime as the front door of the store opened. “Good God’s Philip! What happened in here?!” Anna shrieked, bringing me out of my daze as she looked at the bloody mess in her office. Her horrified eyes landed on me, and I quickly pulled my hand away from Tara’s face, as if guilty of being caught doing something wrong. Tara made a sound of protest in her slumber, and immediately I had the urge to put my hand back, but I curbed it. I almost laughed at myself. I was so screwed. Nervous flutters spread out from my stomach and an indescribable need to bolt shot through me.

“Oh... Good you’re here I was about to call... Um... She cut herself and fainted, and has a wound on her head. She needs a checkup. Call Lola.” I made a break for the door, but stopped as I reached for the doorknob. “Can you please let me know when she wakes up…” I chanced the glance at the broken sahu one last time, a twinge of pain shot through my chest, “And... can you,” I swallowed thickly, “Can you please get rid of it... I…. I can’t…” I didn’t wait for an answer. I ran out of there and didn’t stop until I reached the woods. My feet ate up the ground and I ran and ran till my lungs burned and my muscles ached, begging for a reprieve. And still I didn’t stop.

Exhausted, sweaty and feeling like shit, I walked home and got in the shower. As the warm water cascaded down my body, washing away the day’s tension, the ache in my muscles dulled and I relaxed a bit, glad that as the clock hit midnight, it was finally over.

I got out of the shower, dried off, and that was when I sensed it. Skin prickled with a familiar sensation, goosebumps rose in its wake, nerve endings misfiring, burning, stinging. It was starting… This shouldn’t be happening; it was too early. There were at least eight days left.

I paced my room, mind racing as the thudding of my heart tried to drown out the noise in my head.

Should I go to the cellar? But no one is here to secure the damn thing?! No, it’s fine. I’ll be fine. This is not happening.

Inhale. One... Two.. Three... Exhale.

I tried to control my breathing, like I was in a fucking Lamaze class. Fists opening and closing, nails biting into my sweaty palms as I waited for the first wave of pain. Breathing sped up, I felt dizzy, lightheaded.

Breathe in... breathe out...

Shit. Shit. Shit.

Calm down, I chanted in my head, turning the words round and round as my whole body vibrated, each cell humming with adrenaline.

A searing pain shot through my right palm. The likes of which I haven’t felt before. Excruciatingly painful, but brief. I looked at my palm, but the dizziness made it out of focus. Something golden glinted over my ring finger, blending seamlessly into my skin.

What the actual fuck?!

The room spun out of control. A headache throbbed at my temples…

The last thing I remember thinking was ‘who turned off the lights’, before I landed on something hard and all thought left my mind.

************************************************************

TARA

Thick fog snaked around the trunks. The dark forest was eerily silent as a breeze swept through the branches, swaying sheer, long red banners strung between the trees in a circle around me. I tried to move, but my limbs were heavy as lead.

One foot in front of the other, as if walking over the ocean’s floor, weighted down by the water, I pushed forward, straining. There were faint sounds of chiming and metal dragging over ground with each small step, and something dug painfully into my skin, chafing, tearing, making me wince. I looked at my hands and feet. Delicate silver manacles shimmered in the dim light around my wrists and ankles. Dozens upon dozens of thin chains swayed from each one, entwining, forming an intricate web that crisscrossed across the ground between the roots, being swallowed by the darkness. Their anchoring place lost in the depths of the forest.

Thump-Thump, Thump-Thump.

Muffled heartbeats becoming louder with each beat surrounded me until they were ringing and pounding so strongly as if I had two hearts in my chest. My whole body trembled, my chest heavy, full.

A wave of heat rushed through my blood vessels, setting ablaze my whole body from the inside out. An anguished scream left my lips, and I folded in on myself, falling to my knees. Searing pain settled in my chest and left palm, pulsing, throbbing. Clawing at my chest to tamper down the burning, the pain in my palm intensified. Eyes stinging with tears, vision hazy, I stretched my palm, looking down at it. My entire skin, covered in symbols I have never seen before, glowed like embers, like I was lit from inside out.

The symbols on my palm they glowed more prominently. They rearranged. I could read them. Somehow I knew the language.

Hayallah.

Heart.

Another wave of searing pain washed over me this time, its intensity doubled a thousand fold. I wailed uncontrollably till my throat got sore, falling to the ground, back arching, hands gripping at my chest, eyes shut...

There was a cool and soothing touch on my face, followed by the sound of metal groaning and a manacle snapping. The pain disappeared almost immediately, but I could not open my eyes. I took comfort in that touch; it was familiar. A sense of rightness and peacefulness overtook me. My whole body relaxed.

Eyes fluttering open, a dull ache pulsed in my head. Groaning, I turned and greeting me were wide, worried blue eyes. “Oh, goodness, dear, you’re awake! You scared the crap out of me!” Anna’s piercing voice made the throbbing in my head worse as she helped me up to a sitting position.

“What…” Confused, I looked at my surroundings. I was at the bookstore in Anna’s office.

I blinked.

My mind was fuzzy, like I sat on the spinning chair for too long. My brain was running in circles inside my skull, trying to piece together what was happening. As Gandalf The Gray once said in the mines of Moria, ‘I have no memory of this place.’ But then my gaze fell to the broken photo and the tray on the floor and everything came rushing back. Philip startling me. Me breaking things, Philip’s anger and me cutting my hand. Then I left….

No... I…

I think I fainted... But I think I was dreaming. Does one dream in that situation? I didn’t know. I never fainted before. It was… really weird, but the more I blinked, the more it faded from my memory. The only thing I remembered was the word heart. How bizarre.

Well, I remembered almost everything. Just couldn’t figure out how I ended up on the sofa…

“Ah! Philip…” I scanned the small room as if I could have missed his hulking form. He was nowhere to be seen.

“Oh, that kid just left, he was taking care of you until I showed up,” He did? But he was furious with me. His frigid tone still echoed in my mind, making me shiver anew. Anna smiled softly, then glanced behind her at what I just realized looked like a murder scene, her smile faltering. Hot shame washed over me, making its nest in the pit of my stomach.

“I’m so sorry… I broke that,” I muttered, unable to look at her. Shoulders slumping, I picked the hem of my shirt.

“Oh…” There was a pause that seemed to stretch to infinity, then a resigned sigh. “Don’t worry about it, dear. He’ll get over it,” Anna said, her voice gentle as she squeezed my knee reassuringly.

At that I braved a glance at her, “He?” I asked, confused. She wasn’t looking at me, her gaze still fixed on the massacre on the floor, her expression forlorn.

Were those…

“Were those… Philip’s?” I asked. The cold tendrils of dread hovered over the skin on the back of my neck.

Anna swiveled her head in my direction. “Hmm? Oh,” she took in my expression and whatever she saw made her eyes soften. She cupped my cheek, her thumb stroked over my cheekbone tenderly as she said in a soothing tone, “Let me make you some tea, while we wait for Lola to arrive, ok?” She didn’t wait for my answer. Tapping me lightly on the cheek, she got up and out of the office. A few moments later, she returned with a steaming mug, placing it in front of me on the coffee table.

I brought the mug to the edge of the table. My hands hovered at its sides, warming my fingers with its radiating warmth as I stared at the murky, billowing liquid.

“That kid…” Anna started quietly, and I lifted my eyes to her. She sat in the chair next to me, holding the photo I ruined in her hands. I hadn’t seen her pick it up. Slowly she traced her fingertips over it, a small smile lifting the corners of her lips, her blue eyes cloudy with time long past.

“He might be rude... Well, to be honest, he can be a little shit. He is rough around the edges. But in his core, he is soft. Maybe a little too much. Just like her,” Anna said, not lifting her gaze from the photo. The smile on her face made something pinch inside my chest. The surrounding air thickened. It pressed on me, pushing down, making me sink into the cushioned seat of the sofa.

“Eva. His mother she was the sweetest, most wonderful young woman I have ever met. Not a mean bone in her body. And you would think a person like that would have been blessed with good luck in life… You would really think that…” Her voice contained a note of bitterness. Was? Past tense? I sank even more into the cushion.

For a few moments Anna just stared at the photo, her eyes roaming over it, shimmering, and she sniffled. She shook her head as if to ward off the darkening thoughts and heavy clouds descending upon her. Plastering a smile on her face, she looked at me. “Anyway… Where was I? Ah! Yes! Eva. She had many talents, but she loved to make things. She always had new projects, even that…” her voice drifted off as she looked back at the tray I broke. Those tendrils of dread pressed down on my shoulders, their icy fingers digging deep into my muscles, as something coiled in my gut. His mother made that tiny tray and I broke it. His… dead mother. My hand instinctively went to the front pocket of my jeans, and for a millisecond panic crawled all over my skin, but then I remembered I put it in my backpack. My most cherished MP4 that grandma gave me.

I messed up horribly.

“Philip... That kid was always so restless. Him and his friends were always up to something. One shenanigan after the other, the little assholes. But he loved to take part in his mother’s projects. No art talent, that one, just like his father,” Anna chuckled. “Eva encouraged him anyway. She was an exceptional mother. They made that tray a few months before she passed… a little after his eight birthday…”

With that last sentence, my heart sank. And there was no ship, no raft, not even a Noah’s ark that could have saved it from drowning.

I destroyed something that was precious. The last remnant… the last physical tether to his mother.

Because I knew... I clung to that Mp4 like a lifeline whenever I was restless and couldn’t sleep. Whenever I got scared, I clung to it. I clung to its comfort, to all the memories attached to that tiny piece of metal and plastic. Memories... they would forever stay with me, but I needed something tangible to hold on to. Because I knew she won’t hug me anymore, I won’t hear her voice, I won’t have my hand held in hers... I won’t feel her reassuring presence and I was still in a place I really needed to. It might fade and dull with time, that feeling... but for now, it was a solace to me.

And I broke Philip’s solace. There was no river, no ocean, no holy water to wash away the tangy taste of guilt in my mouth.

Anna took in my expression, and panic whirled across her face. “Oh, dear! No! I didn’t say all of this to make you feel guilty!”

She took my hand, cupping it in both of hers, squeezing lightly, her gaze gentle. “Tara dear... The point my senile self was trying to make was not to make you fall down a guilt tripping hole. It was to understand where all the anger comes from. Though for his temper, I blame his father’s side of the family. That kid is just so clogged up and uptight. I wish he would just relax a bit. I wish he would let himself relax. And I believe you could be a friend to just do that for him.” Anna smiled at me, her eyes held so much emotion, the look almost pleading. Well, it might have been too late for that. I trampled on any bud of friendship that sprouted when I broke that tray.

But the expression on Anna’s face… so hopeful. I had to fix this. A resolve lit inside of me. I didn’t know how, but at the very least, I would give it my best try.

Before I knew it, I was up and lowering myself over the broken pieces of the tray and I collected them, careful not to cut myself again on the glass surrounding them.

The door to the office burst open and in came Lola. Her brown curls flying all over the place, a distraught look on her face as her dark eyes scanned the room frantically. Her gaze fell on my crouching form, and in a nanosecond, she was on me.

“Tara, are you ok? What happened? Where are you hurt? Let me look at you,” she fired off her eyes roaming my face, my whole body, searching for injuries. She pulled my chin up, turning my head this or that way.

“I’m fine Lola, don’t worry. Just a minor bump on my head. My skull is extra hard.” I smiled at her, though my joke didn’t diminish the concern on her face. She looked at the pieces in my stretched out palm, a frown appearing on her ever youthful face.

“Is that your blood?!” she squeaked and grabbed both of my hands abruptly to inspect them. I almost fell on my ass.

“Yeah… I tried to clean the mess and ended up cutting myself. Though some of it might be Philip’s, he cut himself too.” At that, Lola’s eyes snapped to my face. Something akin to shock flashed on her face and she turned to Anna, who was now hovering over us. The two exchanged a few concerned looks, a silent conversation happening that I wasn’t privy to, brown staring at cloudy blue.

After a few moments Lola shook her head, a resigned sigh leaving her, “We’ll see... but it’s probably nothing... It’ll be fine… That’s not how it works...” Lola mumbled under her breath, almost as if she was reassuring herself, staring at my hurt palm.

“What is fine?” I asked, confused by her words. She snapped her eyes to me as if she just realized she said that out loud, “Oh, nothing... You sweetheart, you’ll be fine. We’ll go for a checkup just to be sure, ok?” Lola said. A small smile twisted her lips up as she tucked a lock of my hair behind my ear. But I couldn’t shake the sense that it had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with the looks she exchanged with Anna. I had no time to dwell on those thoughts as she pulled me up and we said our goodbyes to Anna and were on our way to the hospital. I still clutched the pieces of clay in my hand, their presence a burning reminder of my guilt.

After an hour and a half of prodding, probing, and scanning, they deemed me completely fine and ready to go home. Swaddled in a blanket, I sat in the living room, a tea mug in my hands. It’s sweet fragrance soothing as I watched the scenes playing on the screen. Mina insisted we relax and enjoy our favorite show as we did little together since she started going out with Daniel, but I knew she worried I might faint again, so she wanted to keep an eye on me.

I wasn’t really paying attention to the show. My mind drifted to the pieces of clay strewn across the desk in my room.

I was going to fix it, so help me God. A new determination bloomed in my chest. Burrowing inside the blanket, my hand closed over the outline of my MP4 in the pocket of my track pants.

I’ll fix it, I vowed.

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