Wolf's Lullaby

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I heart sushi

PHILIP


It had been two hours since I received the voice message. I glanced at my phone next to me on the couch, tossing the control pad on the coffee table. I grabbed it before I reclined on the pillows, propping my feet on the table. Putting my headphones on, I played the message for the hundredth time, my lips stretched into a wide dumb smile as soon as her voice rang through.

“Oh, is this recording?” there was a sound of rustling followed by, “Ah oops... Wait, it is! Oh poop! Hey! Hi!” she squeaked.

“Sorry to bother you. I got your number from Anna, don’t get mad at her. I pestered her for it... So.. um…. Sorry for not sending a text, but it seemed impersonal, so… Ah, yeah, it’s Tara, by the way! Your favorite person at the moment…! Um… Insert awkward laughter here!” her voice wobbled as she said that and chuckled.

I could almost picture her fidgeting and twisting the hem of her shirt, a thing she did often when she was uncomfortable, avoiding eye contact, her cheeks turning that pretty shade of pink…

There was a quiet that stretched for a few moments, the only sound that of her soft breaths, followed by a sigh, “I’m sorry, I can’t seem to normal… Like, at all… Can we… I have something to return to you, and... Is it okay if we meet up and talk, perhaps?” she asked, blurting out the last part, putting all of her shaky bravery into those words that burned with embarrassment.

I still had no clue what she had of mine to return. I haven’t given her anything. Except trauma. When a voice message arrived from the unknown number, I didn’t open it because I thought it was David again and wanted to delete it. But as my fingers hovered over the delete button, I instead clicked play. Imagine my surprise when it wasn’t the gruff, annoying voice of that father wannabe that sounded through the speaker but a soft, feminine voice of that fumbling girl. I haven’t seen or spoken to her since the incident in Anna’s office. It’s been three days.

“So… Um… Well, call me… or text me, or whatever. Though I need to talk to you, so spare me from tracking you down, ok? Wait, I sound like a debt collector… Scratch that, your knee caps are safe with me… So, yeah… hope to see you soon, bye!” before the recording cut off I could hear her asking the monsters under her bed to eat her. I chuckled. What a dork.

I pulled up my messages and typed.

Me: Meet me in front of Annas at 5PM today?

No sooner have I sent it did I saw little dots appear on my screen, and I watched them loading with bated breath.

Shrimp: Sure! See you there! ^^

“What are you grinning at like that? If I didn’t know better, I would think you were... happy... ew…” a familiar idiotic voice said. I haven’t even registered him enter! Fuck me!

Startled, I almost chucked my phone at his stupid mug as I jumped in my seat, turning my face to find Luca smirking at me.

“Fucking knock! So I don’t accidentally on purpose murder you next time!” Holding a hand over my chest as if that would slow the thrumming of my heart that sent heat to my face, I glowered at him.

“I did. You didn’t answer, so I just let myself in.” Luca shrugged as he rounded the couch and sprawled next to me like a lazy cat. “Who’s Shrimp?” The bastard grinned, wiggling his eyebrows. “It’s a girl, right?”

“No! I have a craving for sea food! I love sushi!” I retorted. With each word, I swear my face became redder and Luca’s grin wider. Seriously? I couldn’t come up with anything else, anything at all?! I just fed the beast!

“Oh, I bet you do. I love me some sushi too.” He made this obscene expression, which made me kick his shin hard, making him yelp as I scrunched up my face in distaste. An image of him putting his grabby, dirty little hands on Tara flashed in my mind and the thought made a growl escape my lips. I almost crushed my phone with how hard I gripped it.

“Oy, chill bro. I was just messing around! Now let’s see…” Luca chuckled, leaning closer, and at the speed of light, the asshole snatched my phone, already running with it outside. Gods help him… Eeny meeny, miny, moe, today I’m gonna kill that hoe!

He was down past the porch, running between the trees, when I tackled him. Air rushed out of him at the impact and my phone flew a few meters away from his hand, landing with a soft thud on the forest floor, face down. He better hope my screen hadn’t cracked!!!

We wrestled and scrambled on the ground, trying to prevent the other from reaching the phone. A tangle of limbs, twisting, kicking and punching. An elbow to the abdomen, a knee to the side. I disentangled myself first, crawling, arms outstretched, tips of my fingers grazed the edge of my phone and in the next moment I grabbed it. Finally.

The victorious grin I had fell turning my face into the replica of a scream painting as I saw the screen. Call connected, Shrimp. A confused and worried voice drifted from the speaker.

“Hello, Philip? Are you ok?! What’s going on?!” Tara panicked from the other end.

Whatever force compelled my degenerate brain to push my hand up and press the phone to my ear and my lips to utter the next words be damned. “Ah... Yeah... Butt dial. Bye.” And end the call. Internally I had a screaming match with myself, but externally I was shooting death rays at Luca who was rolling on the ground having the time of his life, holding his stomach, laughing. Hope he’ll get a hernia or he chokes on his spit.

“Okay. Close your eyes. Relax. I’ll make this slow and painful!” I announced, and in the next moment I was on him.

Half an hour and some punches later, the two of us sat in my living room. Disheveled, with our wounds healing, hair mussed and filled with twigs and leaves and dirt, holding steaming mugs of coffee.

“Damn you, asshole! You broke my fucking jaw!” Luca accused, the said joint producing a clicking sound as he opened and closed his mouth. I gave him a stink eye.

“You asked for it. You even said please.”

He clicked his tongue, grimacing as he mimicked my words, “You even said please...”

“Can’t even take a bit of friendly teasing…” Luca mumbled under his breath.

I turned away, but not before I leveled him with another look, taking a sip of my coffee.

“Ah yeah, I gather it’s not that bad by the way you punch. The meds working properly again?” Luca asked. Now that he mentioned it, I was slightly better. The headache was just a dull, dull ache. I barely registered it. Usually with just a few days left till the full moon, I felt like total crap. Hmm…

“Yeah, I got an adjusted batch, that’s probably why…”

“How’s the head? Any pain?”

“Just normal amount.”

He chuckled, “You know normal amount is none, right?”

I side-eyed him, “Not for me it isn’t…” His face fell, he averted his eyes, shame written all over his features, “Sorry…”

I just shrugged. I was used to it by now, had five years to adapt. The first year had been the worst. Now it was manageable. It last’s roughly for a week each month and then I was alright until the next full moon cycle. At least I was still alive. Other’s in my place weren’t so lucky.

Luca stayed at my house for an hour. We played games on my console, after which I felt restless. As the meeting time drew closer, the jitters worsened. Why was I so fucking nervous?! I wasn’t about to face a lynch mob, for fuck’s sake! She would not ambush me with a pitchfork... Would she? That image made me laugh.

So…to counter it I showered... twice. The first time I was covered in grime, but the second… I found myself under the spray again, so I rolled with it. I might have missed something, right? How clean can one really get if he showered only once? The clothes I was wearing the second time around seemed dirty, too. It wasn’t because my mind was elsewhere and I was on autopilot.

After staring at myself in the mirror, fussing with my hair like the worlds vainest pageant queen for who knows how long, making it messier than ever, me, myself and I got disgusted with ourselves and decided we’ll be early at the meeting place. Fresh air might do me some good. Clear my head, temp down the raging frat party in my gut. Grabbing my keys, I was out and over thirty minutes early.

Rounding the corner of the parking lot behind Anna’s bookstore, I froze mid-step. I wasn’t the only one who had a sudden craving for fresh air, and my heart flopped in my chest like a fish out of water.

She sat on the steps in front of the store, hunched over her phone, headphones in her ears, looking even smaller. Her hair braided away from her face, falling in waves down her back, a familiar expression of utter concentration on her features. She was playing a game. In the next moment, she pumped her fist in the air and wiggled her arms in her little ridiculous victory dance. I smiled. Haven’t seen that in a while.

When I approached, she didn’t react at all; her gaze locked on the game. Not even when I sat one step behind her did she lift her eyes.

Now that was commendable focus, that I didn’t want to break yet, so I just made myself comfortable on the steps, propped my elbow on my knee and watched the hyper-focused squirrel do her thing. How can someone be this defenseless?

She scrunched up her nose, her lips in a pout, a small frown between her brows, and tapped away on her phone. As her tiny caveman avatar crashed into the wall, and big letters of game over danced on her screen, I leaned over to look at her score, nodding my approval of it absentmindedly. That’s when she finally took notice of me and squeaked in surprise like a frightened mouse as she jolted backwards.

“Holy fiery bat-balls from hell Philip!!! You scared the crap out of me!” she pressed a hand holding her phone to her chest as she pulled the headphones out of her ears with the other. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes briefly. Long dark lashes fanned over pinked ivory cheeks before she snapped them open and I could clearly see all the golden flecks swimming in brown and green. I haven’t noticed that I leaned in too close until the pink in her cheeks became a few shades darker. She blinked and averted her eyes. Shit. I pulled back immediately, willing the fire starting in my face to go away.

“Are you a ninja or something?” Tara chuckled nervously, her fingers roaming the edge of the collar of her blouse, pulling my eyes to her collarbones. I followed the delicate lines of them from the dip at the base of her throat to where they disappeared under the material and connected with her shoulders, then up the elegant column of her neck…

“Seriously, how long have you been here?” Tara asked, breaking the trance I fell into. Blinking like on a verge of a seizure, I pulled my eyes to hers.

“Oh… Um, just a minute. Didn’t want to break that impressive focus you had on.” Her lips formed an O shape, and she tucked a few flyaway hairs behind her ear, nodding her head as her eyes roved everywhere but me. I could sense her anxiety as surely as my own, pulsing between us at the rhythm of our quickened heartbeats.

“So…” we started at the same time.

“Um…” again in unison. We laughed nervously at each other, but my smile fell the moment my eyes glimpsed a stitch hidden in her hairline. My stomach churned at the memory of her lying on the floor, and guilt reared her ugly head, souring my mood and burned through the awkwardness.

“How is your head?” I asked. The small smile she had on her face slipped for a fragment of a second before it got three times brighter. “Oh, this dumb thing?” she asked, knocking on her head two times, “As you had a privilege to attest to yourself. Twice. It’s pretty darn strong. One bump didn’t do much damage. They didn’t call me Granite Head in school for nothing.” I would need more context and a detailed elaboration on that later.

“Adamantium Head would have sounded cooler, that thing is indestructible, but they didn’t let me choose, so…” she trailed off as my arm moved off its own accord, tips of my fingers traced the cut on her head. On me, this wound would heal in a matter of seconds…

“Does it hurt?” I asked, quietly.

Big hazel eyes blinked at me, surprised, lips slightly parted and I removed my hand hastily, scratching the back of my neck as I cleared my throat.

“Ah… No… It’s fine. Just a bit sore.” she said, as if coming out of some daze, “Um...so…” she added, picking at the hem of her blouse, a tight smile pulling at her lips, her eyes going from my face to her lap.

“Wanna go for a walk?” she blurted out, surprising me. Her voice sounded so unsure. There was so much anticipation and anxiety mixed in her expression. Like she wasn’t sure if I was about to blow her off and make her get to the point of this rendezvous faster. Strangely, I found myself not that eager to get to that and very much eager to soothe her nervousness.

“Ok, sure.” At that, her features brightened, lit up as two cute dimples popped in her cheeks.

“Oh, cool. So, there is a trail behind Anna’s that goes into the woods, and I always wondered where it goes, so can we walk there?” she beamed, although I could still detect a hearty dose of nerves in her voice. I patted my jeans of dirt as I got up from the steps, wiped my palms on them before I offering it to her, “Let’s go then.” She placed her tiny palm in mine, my fingers closed over it, completely engulfing it. So fucking small... and warm, very warm. I pulled her up gently. Might have stared at our joined hands a bit too long when she cleared her throat. Her face was red as she swayed on the balls of her feet, eyes darting to our hands, my face, then anywhere that’s not in my direction, and I dropped her hand as if it was made of lava.

Fucking Hell! What in all the Gods names was I fucking doing? Did I get brain damage when I fainted a few days ago? I couldn’t seem to function properly since morning.

She didn’t let me agonize over my newfound condition as she bounced down the steps, waving at me, dimples flashing, “Allons-y Philip!” and bounded behind the building.

Smiling, I followed.

We trudged down the beaten path through the forest as she informed me that the weather was nice and that she can’t wait for Autumn to come and all the leaves to change their colors. It was her favorite season. At that I swear a computerized voice at the back of my mind said, “New information stored.”

Then a silence fell between us as we walked for almost twenty minutes, and even though she was looking around with much wonder at the lush green trees, the light spilling through the branches, at the small wild flowers growing at their base, her shoulders were tense and her silence a testament to her unease. Her mind lost to whatever thoughts plagued her. I caught her fingers twitching at her sides, fiddling with her blouse, pulling at the strap of her backpack... She wasn’t relaxing, and her not talking bothered me. So not like her. The girl couldn’t stop the word vomit to save herself. And I kind of missed that.

A few minutes more of silence and only the sound of our feet crunching the twigs on the ground, her fluttering heartbeats... or were they mine? I couldn’t really tell anymore as the tension grew palpable, choking even. On the verge of my sanity snapping, I cleared my throat and racked my brain for anything to say to break the unsettling quiet.

“Um…” I uttered before she abruptly halted in front of me, straightened her spine, squared her shoulders, gripping her backpack straps with renewed vigor as she turned and leveled me with a determined look, her lips set in a stubborn line.

She brought her hands up, “Wait!” I stopped, tilted my head, regarding her with unveiled amusement. What was she up to?

She closed her eyes for a moment, breathing in deeply, seemingly to center herself for whatever she was trying to do as she hummed ooom, before she snapped her eyes open and looked at me, her gaze now full of... guilt.

“I’m so sorry…” she hung her head as in defeat, her voice barely above a whisper. Fishing out an MP4- I saw her carrying around all the time, while investigating. I’m still sticking to calling it that- out of the front pocket of her jeans. She flipped it in her hands, staring at it for a moment longingly before she faced me again, a rueful smile on her face. “This… My grandmother bought it for me on my 10th birthday. She loved music and I guess I inherited that love from her. She said music brings forth many worlds to life. It soothes the soul and takes you on all kinds of journeys. That it was a place to seek solace when you are down, or cry yourself dry when needed, so you can power through whatever bothers you. This is my solace… My only physical tether to her, now that she’s gone…” her voice broke, and her eyes filled with tears. My chest tightened painfully, even more so as those tears spilled down her cheeks. I fought with my body to stay put and let her finish what she was saying.

“I’m sorry I broke yours…” she whispered, wiping the tears away with the palms of her hands.

What is she...Oh. And then it clicked. Anna must have told her about the sahu. I… didn’t know how to process her knowing about that. Too many emotions churned and twisted in my gut at that, but she hadn’t finished. She rummaged through and retrieved a small cardboard box from her backpack, handing it to me.

“What’s this?” I frowned, testing the weight of the box in my hands.

“Open it. I know it’s not the same and never will be, but I tried... um..” she continued to blab about it but the moment I took the lid off, my brain canceled her out as I stared down at the content of the box.

She pieced it together. It was here…

The broken lines were still visible, but it was whole. Encased in a small wooden-framed glass box, propped snugly on a metal holder. All the symbols I scribbled in years ago, even the prints of my mom’s and mine fingers as we squished and kneaded the clay. She let me take the lead on making it, though I sucked at arts and crafts. Still do.

You are doing great, baby! Look how pretty it looks!” she beamed at me. I was unconvinced, but she looked so darn happy, and I hadn’t seen her that happy in a while, so I played along. “Your daddy is going to love it!” that dimmed my enthusiasm a bit. Dad was rarely home, and when he was, he was too tired to deal with me. And mom always had a huge smile on her face when he was around, and only for that...

Only to keep that smile on her face, I tried my best to make it. She didn’t notice me, but I knew how many nights she cried herself to sleep waiting for my father to come home… She didn’t know I knew how hurt she really was living in that hellhole with those soul-sucking vultures. That man was never there to protect her, and she always hid it from him, all the bad, all the hurt. Plastering a smile, powering through it all... always with a smile. And I wanted to guard that smile… All of her wants and wishes that went into that clay and what it represented. Love. A family. So I feigned the same enthusiasm as we made the sahu…

“Oh, my god! Philip... I’m so sorry... I overstepped didn’t I? I fudged up again... I’m so, so sorry!” Tara’s distressed voice brought me back to present and I blinked at her, too overwhelmed to speak or trust my voice. She was aghast, flailing her arms around. The guilt in her eyes increased a thousand fold.

“You know, you can hit me, I deserve it!” the fumbling little idiot said and leaned forward, closing her eyes firmly, clenching her jaw, waiting for me to strike her. Idiot.. Cute, wonderful idiot... I wrapped my arms around her slight form tightly, burying my face in the crook of her neck.

“Oh, okay… okay.” she mumbled, surprised. Slowly, the rigid set of her spine relaxed as her hands snaked to my back, hugging me in return, rubbing soothing little circles.

With each second, each deep breath I took, her scent and her presence calmed and tamped down the onslaught of tumultuous emotions inside me. Each small circle of her hand brought my raging pulse down a beat. I don’t know how long we just stood like that...

“Thank you…” I whispered in a tone so foreign to me, soft as I pulled away from her. And that wasn’t even coming close to how grateful I was. She gave me another one of her dimpled smiles, this one shy and awkward, which I returned with one of my own.

It was awkward after that, for a while, as we were on our way back. But thank Gods for this girl being a nervous chatterbox and her great penchant for babbling, that it washed away the uncomfortable feelings. We talked about everything and nothing... I mean, she talked. I answered her questions, countering ones with my own if I got a chance, before we parted ways.

That evening when I got home, I placed the glass box with the sahu near mom’s photo. For the first time in seven years, it wasn’t heavy or suffocating to look at it. Lighter. That’s how I felt.

Well, riddle me that?

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