The alarm started beeping, which did not help the throbbing headache I had already.
The dreams, they were becoming more frequent, more lucid.
I turned off the alarm. This time I didn’t reflexively hurl it to the wall. I couldn’t buy another phone. I would lose all progress on Stone Smash.
I took notice of the date.
Yep, just a few more days.
Shit. Fuck. Shit.
The medicine might be losing some of its potency, its grip on my issue loosening.
Sluggishly, I got to my feet and padded across the room to the bathroom. My head throbbed like it was being pummeled with thousand sledge hammers. Usually, a cold shower helped. This morning, not so much. It was really shitty. And why today of all days?
I got out of the shower, threw some clothes on, and went to the kitchen. Opening the fridge, I took a tiny bottle of gooey blue shit and one-shot it.
Damn. This thing was still nasty.
I couldn’t get used to the taste in all five years I’ve been taking it.
Keeping myself from gagging, I started rummaging through cabinets and fridge for food.
Crap. I needed to stock up.
I found an energy bar lying around in one of the drawers and gobbled it up. Good thing I still had coffee.
A knock sounded at my front door, and I turned. I knew who it was..
Stephan. I sniffed him out before he even approached the porch.
“Gooooood morning, Sunshine! Daddy is home, and I come bearing gifts!” he yelled, opening the door holding two shopping bags filled to the brim with food.
“Stop calling yourself daddy, you creep! You’re more like my personal Mary Poppins.” I smirked as he stalked to the kitchen counter and put the bags down.
“You now say thank you, boy! I’m your Mary Poppins, ya’ll!” he laughed. “But, boy, you look like shit. That bad huh?” He asked, looking through the bags and handing me a box of cereal.
“Yeah. Thanks… Shower didn’t help.” I set two bowls of cereal and milk on the counter.
“Did you take your medicine?”
“Yeah, just now.” I answered, stuffing a spoon full of cereal in my mouth.
“It’s today, right? Her birthday?” He asked quietly, not looking at me.
My stomach dropped, the cereal in my mouth tasting like ash, appetite gone. I turned my face toward the living room, glancing at the photo over the fireplace.
It had been seven years now. My chest tightened, stomach churned, tying in knots, and I squeezed the edge of the kitchen counter tightly, fingers turning white. I had to loosen the grip before I broke it.
Suddenly, a sharp pain shot through my head and I lurched forward, breaking the bowl with my fist as I slammed over it.
Claws poked from my fingertips, canines extending. A metallic tang flooded my mouth as I bit down hard on my bottom lip, fighting the pain. My skin burned like it was being stung by millions of red ants. I wanted to crawl out of it.
“Whoa there! Breathe Philip!” Stephan jumped off his seat and held my shoulders. I growled involuntarily, irritated. As anger bubbled up, threatening to boil over, I motioned for him to move aside so I didn’t swipe at him.
I tried to take big gulps of air and calm myself. Clutching my head, I squatted down.
After what seemed like an agonizing eternity, my claws retracted and I relaxed.
“Has this been happening more frequently?” I heard Stephan’s worried voice.
I shook my head, “No, not really. Not with this many days left. It wasn’t this bad…” Stephan looked at me, his expression tense. “You should talk to Lola. Maybe you need another adjustment.”
I huffed, then shrugged. Beyond the witch mixing my meds, and occasional monitoring, my interactions with Lola were almost nonexistent.
Slowly, I got up, my muscles aching. For a few moments, I was so damn weak. Drained, like if a breeze blew my way, I would be on the ground. Then the headache subsided, and a rush of strength coursed through my system. I loosed a relieved breath.
Finally. The medicine was doing its damned job.
Stephan regarded me with unveiled worry, his face pinched, sympathetic.
I hated that look. I hated the pity, so I looked away, scooping up the pieces of broken ceramics and cleaning the mess I made.
Stephan clapped his hands, “You know what you need?” He answered his own question, “You need a run!”
“Race you to the lake! No shifting!” Not waiting for my answer, he was already opening the front door and stepping onto the porch.
I smiled, following him outside. Standing next to him, I took in the surrounding forest.
I got in the position, bending my knees and crouching down. Closing my eyes, inhaling deeply the fragrance of fresh morning rain, damp earth, wood and leaves. I picked out the sound of small animals scouring in the bushes, hiding in the trees. The buzzing of the insects, flapping of the wings. Wild flower scent wafted from the nearby meadow, the wind carrying a faint odor of deer and lake water.
Through my enhanced senses, I could almost picture the terrain in front of me in vivid detail. Choosing my course, I looked at Stephan, gave him an impish grin, then bolted.
Running always gave me release. It helped on days like today, when my control was slipping, when I struggled to maintain it. Pushing myself over my limits helped me calm down. Feeling my muscles contract and relax, controlling my breathing. With every movement of my body, I felt more like myself. More in control.
I could sense Stephan getting closer to me, so I picked up my speed, but the bastard was also quick, and suddenly pain exploded in my side as he rammed me with his shoulder. I hit the nearby tree, scraping bark off of it, wincing.
“Too slow, Princess!” He blew me a kiss as he passed me by, taking the lead.
I put more power in my legs and rushed in his direction, slamming my full body mass at him, making him tumble forward over the ground. He flipped over, raising dust, leaves and branches in his wake and landed in a crouching position with his hands digging into the ground.
“So clumsy, like Bambi on ice.” I winked.
He gave me his I’m-gonna-fuck-you-up now stare, but then it seemed he got a better idea. His lips twisted into a devious grin. And as I was passing him by, he had the nerve, the audacity to go back on his words and do a half-shift.
Calves bulking up, his track suit burst at its seams over them. His shirt got shredded to pieces as his torso became wider. The skin now visible turned a grayish color, tufts of dark gray fur covering it. His eyes turned from caramel to golden amber, canines protruding, ears elongated, becoming pointed at the tip.
“Hey! No shifting dickhead!”
Smirking, he pinned me against the tree with his elbow, pushing his entire body weight against my chest.
“I said no shifting.” A cocky grin played on his now transformed face, making him seem menacing. “Nothing about the half shift! Tootles!” The idiot barked as he took off.
Cracking my knuckles, I took a deep breath. My heart beat became faster, pounding in my ears as adrenaline coursed through my system, the power surged together with feverish heat. Muscles expanding, senses becoming even sharper, I crouched down and started running.
With wind grazing my skin, the thumping of my feet on the ground, I closed the distance between me and Stephan almost in a blink of an eye.
I pushed his side, causing him to fly into a tree trunk, breaking it in half. A loud growl sounded behind me as he was once again getting closer. We pushed and shoved each other a few more times, trying to slow the other down before we got to the meadow blanketed with small violet and white flowers.
Just past it I could hear deer grunting, the lake water smell becoming stronger. We looked at each other, then sprinted forward. I was in the lead, but Stephan breathed down my neck. So, as I came closer to the edge of the forest at the other end of the meadow, I positioned myself directly in front of him. The moment he got just a breath near me, I stopped abruptly, squatted down, then swiftly swiped my foot under his feet, making him fall on his back.
And victory was mine as I raced to the lake.
I broke through the trees into the clearing, scaring the shit of that poor deer. It scampered away deep into the forest, and I shifted back as I was already nearing the lake shore. Panting, covered in sweat, I sat on a moss-covered hollow tree trunk lying near the water.
“So, what’s the score now?” Stephan asked, coming out of the woods, his hands on his hips, trying to catch his breath.
“282:280 for me, sucker!” I flipped him the bird.
He put his large hand on my head and ruffled my hair, not so gently, “Aw, daddy is so proud! My baby boy is growing up!” He cooed. I pushed his hand away as he sat on the trunk next to me.
We both sat in silence, looking over the peaceful water surface, gleaming in the rays of morning sun coming through the branches.
“My father talked to him... Said he told him to buy flowers. Lilies.” Stephan said, his voice careful.
I snorted, “Bet his secretary reminded him, like every damn year. And I don’t believe he’ll go himself. He’ll make your dad leave them. But then again, he has no sense of shame… he might dare…” Every word dripped venom, and I sunk my claws into the rotten wood to stave off the simmering rage.
Stephan didn’t reply, nor did he glance my way. He mulled something over, but decided not to voice his thoughts, opting to stay silent on the matter. Though I was aware, he didn’t quite agree with my behavior; he had the decency not to argue. Not today.
“When are you going?” He asked.
“No. I’ll be fine.” I answered, fully aware he was going to come with me no matter what I said.
Silence fell between us. Both of us stared again at the shimmery water surface as a warm breeze swept through the clearing and Stephan turned his head up, sniffing.
“Hmm… Only one? Is he finally cutting you some slack?” Stephan asked, raising an incredulous brow.
I snorted, “Nah… It’s two.” I gestured with my head to my left, not looking in the direction, but purposefully raising my voice, “Someone should probably shower more often! I can smell you even with wind blowing in the opposite direction, Dragos!” A muffled growl come from the forest, and both Stephan and I chuckled at that.
Still laughing, he smacked me on the back. “Good one, good one.” I smiled, “Right?”
“Hmm… the scratch on your back. It shrunk. It almost faded completely. It’s three tiny white lines now.” He said, eyeing the said lines, a memento from the Grave Digger, and I tensed slightly, but willed my muscles to relax, and my pulse to remain steady as guilt turned my stomach inside out.
I fucking forgot about the healing wound a few days after the fight and in my idiocy pranced through my house without a shirt on. Stephan saw the wound and was immediately on my ass. I had to think on the fly.
“What was the story again? Ah… You went running over the west cliffs, got too close to an eagle’s nest and a pissed off mama bird attacked you, right?” He narrowed his eyes, an amused glint in them, biting the inside of his cheek, to stop himself from laughing at my ridiculous explanation.
I shrugged, trying to sound nonchalant, “That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.”
Stephan chuckled, shaking his head. He regarded me for a few seconds, his gaze intent, almost making me squirm as my mind yelled, ‘he knows, he knows, we are screwed!’, before his features softened, a smile pulling the corners of his lips. But then his expression changed to one of concern. “You are an idiot.… Be careful. Don’t get in too many scuffles. Take better care of yourself.” His comment made the guilt tighten its hold on me. He thought I got in a squabble in school or something, and I felt even worse for hiding shit from him. He was my best fucking friend, and I was a fucking shameless prick.
Smacking me on the back once more, he got a look as if he remembered something. “Oh, shit, I almost forgot! There’s been a meeting downtown. A human is coming to Blackwood.”
I frowned, “What human? Why?” Not that humans didn’t live here, but most were bonded to pack members and bound, never to reveal our world to others.
“Some girl, I think she’s your age. She’ll be living with Lola for some time.” Stephan said, rubbing the scruff on his chin in thought. “Though it’s weird… Alpha and Lola must have made some special deal about this girl. Fuck me if I know what that is, but the witch must have pulled something to get him to comply.”
“That’s…. Ridiculous. And a major inconvenience.” I shook my head. The old man was going senile.
“We are all on down low until… I don’t know… until she leaves in a year or gets the great reveal and adapts, maybe? Ah, well.” He slapped me on the back and jumped off the trunk.
Seriously, what the actual fuck? What was that old man thinking, allowing an unaware human into our pack?!
“Let’s go boy. I need a cold beer. I got some at your place.”
“You brought beer to a minor’s house? How shameful,” I teased.
“Oh, shut up! Like you don’t sip on Anna’s cognac and whiskey when you two play those board games, cards and shit! At which, I was told, you suck!” He laughed, and I threw a patch of moss at him.
“I don’t suck! She cheats! Have you played with that crazy old bat?!”
Stephan shook his head, still laughing.
“Ok, let’s go! Race you back to the house!” I said and was already running ahead, not waiting for him to reply.
The moon was high in the sky, the night bright, speckled with twinkling lights. I looked around the shadow clad tombstones as I made my way through to the big oak tree in the middle of the graveyard.
It was quiet, and the night air of early spring was chill. I didn’t have to turn around to see that both Stephan and Luca were standing at a respectful distance in the shadows.
As I approached the tree, the moonlight reflected on the surface of a metal plate at the bottom of the tree trunk.
There were fresh flowers next to it.
White, her favorite.
Irritation prickled at me and my anger was rising so I clenched my teeth, closed my eyes as to contain myself from ripping those into pieces.
I won’t do that.
Not in front of her.
I took a calming breath and placed my bouquet of white lilies and wild violet and white flowers I saw today in the meadow next to the others.
“Hey…” I said with a lump in my throat.
“Happy birthday, Mom.”