“Juna?” Nellie asks, turning around in her chair. “What’s wrong?”
“What if it was just a little bit?” Juna splutters. “What if it h-happened way before I even started transforming?”
“What in heaven’s name are you talking about?”
Juna’s hands shoot to her hair, fingers curling angrily around the strands, eyes widening in hysteria. “Shit,” she screams, strutting out of the kitchen. “Shit! Shit! Shit!”
I dart after her before she races out the front door. “Hey! Juna?” I ask, seizing her by the arm. “What’s wrong?”
She wheels around, trembling from head to toe. “I have to go see Max,” she says, her voice burning with urgency. “Now.”
“Sure,” I answer calmly, “but first tell me why?”
Struggling to hold back tears, she explains, “When I was thirteen, he and I became blood brothers. Don’t you see? It’s my fault. I’m the one who made him sick!”
She turns to go outside again.
“Wait,” I say, barricading the door. “You can’t just go run and see him now.”
“Because it’s not safe for you to be running out in the daylight, especially on the streets—“
“No one will see me,” she interjects. “Besides I run on the streets all the time. I can handle the car thing if that’s what is bothering you.”
“I know, but . . .” I struggle for an excuse. “Selene probably won’t let you into the house anyway.”
“She has to,” she tells me matter-of-factly. “I have information that might save her son.”
“What Logan?” she barks. “When would be the best time for me to go tell him that I’m the reason why his life is ruined?”
“I don’t know,” I say. “I just think you should think about this for a moment before racing off and telling him.”
“No, I really think I should tell him now.”
“Juna?” Nellie stands beside me. “Honey, you need to take a deep breath and calm down. Okay? Lets go into the living room and talk about this. I want to know about what happened between you and your friend Martin.”
“It’s Max,” she says through clenched teeth.
“Yes, dear, Max,” Nellie says soothingly. “Come on,”—she gestures with her hand toward the living room—“lets not make any rash decisions now. Come tell me all about him.”
“Fine,” Juna sighs, closing her eyes.
I tell her everything. I tell her about my thirteenth birthday and how I stupidly bloodied my foot on the dock. I tell her about Max, how he wanted to be blood brothers then, how he sliced his foot open and then rubbed it against mine. I also tell Nellie about Max’s strange behavior and symptoms, about his accident.
“Hmm, sweetheart,” Nellie begins. “That’s very intriguing.”
I glance down at my knees, wanting to cry and scream and run away, all at once, but of course I don’t. Instead, I hold it all in, but the holding process makes me shake and that’s something I, unfortunately, can’t control.
I raise my chin.
“Remember when we first met?”
“Vaguely,” I answer. “That day was kind of a blur.”
“Do you remember me talking about the savior’s temperature?”
I nod. “Yeah, you said it gets super hot.”
“Only the females, though,” she reminds me. “And what about the males’ temperature?” she asks.
“Icy,” I answer after sifting through my memories, just now remembering the joke she made afterwards that no one but herself laughed at.
“Yes,” she whispers. “So, because of that there must be some connection.”
“What do I do?”
“What?” I snap, hoping I heard her wrong. “Nothing?”
She nods, looking confused.
“Why nothing?” I almost scream. “Didn’t you listen to me? Max is dying!”
“I don’t like the idea of you telling people what you are,” she explains. “It isn’t safe Juna.”
“But he deserves to know!”
Nellie shakes her head. “If you tell him and Selene, they’ll want to get a doctor and figure out how to cure him and if they tell the doctors, then the doctors will want to sample your blood and we just can’t take that risk,” she explains.
I groan and look away. My face is hot and I feel volcanic, ready to explode. “What is he supposed to do then?” I ask. “Suffer? If he dies because of me I don’t—” but I can’t finish my sentence, instead I let out a ragged breath of air.
“Juna, I’m not saying that he is going to die—”
“But he might,” I retort. “It’s already taken a major toll on his body.”
“I’m not going to put this subject on the back burner, okay? I’m going to give it some thought and decide what is the best solution for everyone involved, but for now I don’t want you telling him anything. Is that understood?” she asks, eyeing me warily.
“I guess so,” I say, dejectedly.
Sometimes in life we get to a certain point where the world seems so unbearably chaotic that we literally feel as though we have been turned into a balloon. The tension builds as more air goes in, until we just can’t handle it any longer and…POP!
I’m afraid I have reached that point.
I plop down on my bed, lying on my stomach and then grab a pillow, at which point I shove my face into it, and scream. The scream comes from somewhere deep within me like I am pulling up every ounce of anger that exists inside my body, from the very tips of my toes to my throat—some of the heat filtering in from my brain too—gathering into this one infuriated scream. After I scream, long and loud, my body starts trembling and tears sear my eyes, but the hate, the fear, and the confusion still lingers in my body and so I scream again and again and again, trying to rid myself of it all.
“Juna?” Hannah asks, opening the door to the bedroom.
I lift my face from the pillow and turn my head in the opposite direction. Tears topple out my eyes, but dry within seconds. “Oh,” I say, embarrassed, wiping away the snot that drips from my nose. “Yeah?”
“Are you okay?”
I shake my head and as I do this, my throat tightens as I struggle to fight back a sob. “No,” I admit. “Not really.”
She steps into the room, closing the door behind her. “Um, is there anything I can do for you?” she asks, sounding helpless. “Would you like a glass of water or something?”
I shake my head and then roll over onto my right side. Hannah comes over to face me, taking a seat on Noah’s bed. She sits with her back erect, bringing her hands together and setting them on top of her lap. She looks at me with concerned eyes, remaining quiet.
This is really something I can’t stand—just her sitting there, staring at me, in the silence. I feel like I should say something, but what can I say?
“This is probably a stupid question,” Hannah whispers, glancing down at her hands, “but are you afraid that Max is going to die if they don’t find a cure?”
My throat constricts even more this time and I feel as though it will be impossible for me to answer without crying. So, instead I nod, but then immediately have to close my eyes and pull in a deep breath of air in to keep the sobs and the tears away.
This crying thing is one of the many reasons I hate about being a girl sometimes.
“Well,” she begins, meeting my eyes, “if you want to know my honest opinion, I think you should tell him.”
This takes me by surprise. “Really?” I ask.
“Yes.” She nods. “Nellie may have her own rules to how this ‘savior’ thing works, but I really think we need to be flexible with these rules when something like this happens.”
I let this sink in.
“If he means as much to you as I think he does then I think you should tell him,” Hannah says. “I just wanted you to know my opinion.”
“Thanks,” I tell her. “I appreciate it.”
This idea expands in my head until it fills every crevice in my mind, until it crowds out every other thought.
Yes, I think. She’s right. I have to tell him.
I stare out the window during dinner, wishing for the dark to come sooner. The sun has been going down at around nine o’clock these days. It stays brighter up here during the summer time compared to San Francisco and it makes sense if you think about it. The further north you go up the longer the day or the night will be. I guess I should be thankful then that the Newberg’s don’t live in Alaska or else this plan of mine would be a real pain in the ass.
Rowan, Connor, and Noah have kitchen duty tonight, so I am free to do as I please. Juna says she wants to do something outside and so she, my two sisters, and I go into the backyard.
Erin bounces around on the trampoline, doing all sorts of flips: frontwards and backwards, even some sideways. Hannah, Juna, and I climb on with her and as we do this I notice the long pinkish lines running down Juna’s leg.
Will her scars ever heal? Those were some pretty nasty gashes on her legs. I wonder if her body ever gets tired of re-healing itself.
We jump on the trampoline for ten minutes at which point Erin says, “I want to go on the quad Logan.”
“Hannah’s fifteen,” I tell her, “she can drive you around.”
Hannah shakes her head, scowling at me because Hannah never drives the quad.
“No,” Erin groans, rolling her eyes.
“Fine,” I submit, hopping off the tramp.
I take Erin out for a spin through the woods for a good twenty minutes and when I get back my other siblings have finished their kitchen duties and all want a ride too. So, I end up spending two hours giving everyone a ride through the woods.
My butt is numb now and it’s getting dark. I help Noah off the ATV, thinking, yes I’m done, when Juna taps my shoulder and asks for a ride. Even though I feel like I’m about to keel over any minute now I’m a huge sucker for those emerald eye’s and that charming smile of her’s.
So, I climb back onto the quad and Juna swings her leg over the seat, wrapping her arms around me, which of course sends various body parts of mine into a frenzy.
We’re off, speeding through the woods and it’s really one of the most peaceful things I’ve done lately. Just Juna and me, on an evening ride through the forest.
The sweet smell of pine, blackberry bushes, moss, and soil fills the air and gosh does it smell great.
I swap on the lights because it’s getting darker quicker now.
As we approach the meadow I shift into a higher gear, pushing my thumb harder against the gas, but the minute I do this Juna is yelling at me and slapping my shoulder. I stop abruptly, so abrupt that Juna slams into my back. I crane my neck around to see her. “What’s wrong?” I ask out of breath.
“I have to go,” she tells me in a rush, jumping off the quad, and yanking her helmet off. She shoves it into my hands.
“Go?” My voice cracks.
“Yes,” she says and her face is all scrunched up like it is in pain or something. I know that face. It’s the face she makes before she runs off to be superwoman.
Crap, I think. Why now?
“Sorry Logan,” she tells me quickly, jogging backwards. “Please let everyone know I’ll be back soon.” She whips around and then sprints off into the woods, launching herself into the air and then transforming into wolf and just like that she is gone.
Ha! I think he actually believed me, which means I’m a better actress than I thought.
My original plan was to simply freak out and leave while they watched a movie or something to that degree, but this worked out much, much better.
Now I can go see Max.
Various automotive noises whistle past me as I jet through the streets, weaving in and out among the cars as I make my way to Selene’s house. I reach the entrance to her driveway in a matter of seconds, coming to an abrupt halt, at which point everything clears.
I make my way up the path at an extended trot, my ears flicking forward the minute the house comes into view. The golden glow of the downstairs lights illuminates a good portion of the front lawn, which will make sneaking onto the roof without getting caught a bit trickier than usual, but if I figured out a way to do it last time then I can certainly find a way to do it again.
I trot up the slope that leads from the driveway to the lawn and then pick up the pace in order to transform fluidly back into my human self. Transforming back into my normal self is definitely less comfortable than it is the other way around, but again like everything, it’s something I’m getting used to still. I shake out my arms as I jog along the lawn’s perimeter, sticking to the edge where the orchard meets the grass.
I sprint for the old oak tree that stands parallel to the white farmhouse, its branches reaching out for the roof as though shielding it from harm. I start climbing, comforted by its familiarity as I move easily among the limbs, but once I am at level with the roof I know the tricky part has yet to come.
I take a deep breath and then jump, stumbling to my knees as I land on the roof.
Shit, I think. That was way too loud.
I crawl the rest of the way to his window and then peek inside, but his room is so dark that it takes a while for my eyes to adjust and make out any of the objects inside of it. The minute things clear for me, though, I realize no one is in the room.
I bet he is downstairs drinking a glass of milk or something like that, I think, remembering how he always liked his warm glass of milk before heading off to bed.
I turn away from the window, scoot down the roof some, closer to the tree, and sit. I sit and I wait, expecting Max to enter his room any minute now.
It’s a warm night, maybe the hottest night of the summer so far and I wish there was a breeze to cool things down a little.
I sigh after ten minutes of waiting, moving my hands up onto my knees to rest, which I have now discovered are scraped up and bleeding.
Now that I see them, they start stinging, so I move my hands down my legs, cupping them around my ankles instead.
I wait another ten minutes.
I wait and I wait and I wait.
A total of forty minutes have gone by and still nothing.
Where the heck is he? I think in agonizing frustration.
I hear movement in the orchards, some rustling of twigs and leaves. A figure stumbles out of the trees into the open and falls face down on the opposite end of the lawn like an old drunk.
“Max!” Selene screams, sprinting off the porch and across the lawn to reach him.
Max? My heart starts thumping loud and hard in my chest.
Selene helps him to his feet, wrapping an arm around his waist, she works hard to make sure he doesn’t fall down again as they make their way back to the house.
A dozen unanswered questions reel through my mind. Where was he? What happened? Is he okay? Is he hurt? Uh-oh, can they see me from here?
I crush my spine further against the house, curling my body into a tight ball as if this will help keep me better hidden.
Max’s knees buckle from underneath him and he falls to the ground a second time. Selene shrieks, stumbling along with him. It takes everything in me to restrain myself from leaping off this roof and racing after him.
His body shakes madly and it looks as though he is having an epileptic seizure.
“Max,” Selene says, “sweetheart? I can’t lift you by myself. I’m going to need your help on this buddy. Come on, we’re almost there.”
He clamps his eyes shut, grits his teeth, and lets out this miserable groan that almost brings tears to my eyes as he pushes himself off the ground.
“There we go,” Selene coos. “You’re doing great honey.”
She helps him the rest of the way to the house and when she shuts the front door I let out a huge breath of air. I pinch my eyes shut, sucking in deep gulps of air, in an attempt to slow my heart rate down.
What the hell is happening?
I scoot closer to Max’s window, turning my head in its direction, but not allowing myself to look in just yet. I wait for the room to glow. I listen carefully for both Selene and Max’s voice. Maybe I’ll hear what happened, figure out what the hell is going on around here.
About ten minutes later a bright light spills into the room, shedding a yellow glow onto a small portion of the roof. My heart jolts and I listen carefully.
Due to the closed window the sounds are muffled, but so far I can hear their footsteps and shuffling noises of cloth, and maybe that is because Selene is helping Max into his bed right now. “There you are my love,” Selene tells him. “The medicine should be kicking in soon.”
My throat tightens.
It’s quiet for a moment and I can’t tell if he is mumbling a reply back to her. I inch a little closer to the window, doing my best to keep quiet.
“Oh honey,” she says softly, almost tearful. “I’m so, so sorry about all this. I can’t even begin to fathom what you’re going through, but don’t lose hope my love, we’ll find a solution.”
Again, it is quiet for another moment and I cannot determine whether he has answered her or not and maybe he has, but is only responding with a nod or a shake of the head.
“Goodnight Max,” she says. The lights go out and his door squeaks shut.
I need to wait a while longer before I go in. I don’t want Selene to unexpectedly barge into the room.
As I inch closer to the window I hear the sound of a car and instantly snap my head in the direction of Selene’s driveway. A pair of headlights glides up the path.
I move away from Max’s window, closer to the tree, hoping to stay out of view. The car parks and two doors open and slam shut. Two figures emerge swiftly up the path that leads from the driveway up to the lawn. With every nearing footstep my heart thuds a little harder, a little faster, hoping whoever these people are, they won’t bring Selene any unwanted news. A young man and woman— in their early thirties I guess—approach the house and from what I can see, they look extremely frazzled.
The pair climbs up the porch stairs, followed by a sharp knock at the door.
No one comes to the door.
They knock a second time, loud and hard.
They knock a third time, their fists pounding frantically against the door.
The door opens. “Yes?” Selene asks.
“Yes, hello,” the man begins in a rush. “My name is James Devlin. This is my wife Sophie.”
“Okay,” Selene says and she seems to draw out the word in an annoyed way, but I can’t blame her. “What can I do for you two?”
“Uh, well,”—the man’s voice starts off shakily—“I’m not so sure how to put this, but Sophie and I saw s-something we’re not really sure of—”
“We saw this huge bear-like thing,” the woman interjects, her voice rising in panic. “It leapt out in front of our car and I swear we were going to hit it. I’ve never seen anything like it before. We saw it come through the orchards and we wanted to come warn you about it. I’m afraid this thing is what’s responsible for all those reported livestock attacks.”
“Wow,” Selene says softly, considering this. “That must have been a very terrifying experience for both of you, but I can assure you that nothing has come onto my property so far. At least, not to my knowledge.”
“It might still be out there,” the man says shakily, “you know, hiding or something?”
“Well, I don’t believe that it is on my property right now,” Selene says calmly. “You two look like you’re in shock. Can I pour you a cup of peppermint tea with honey to take on the road?”
“Uh, no…thank you, though,” the woman says, her voice sounding confused by Selene’s calmness. “Our cell phones don’t get any service out here and so we were wondering if there was any possibility we could use yours.”
“Yes, unfortunately that’s one of the problems about living out here, but if you travel down the road a little bit further you’ll find that your phone gets service again,” she kindly informs them.
“Well, we were actually hoping to call the police with your phone,” the woman explains. “Maybe they can catch this creature and put an end to these attacks.”
“Yes,” Selene admits, “Hmm. Well, I agree that would be nice, but I’m afraid I don’t feel entirely comfortable with asking the police to come search for this creature when I myself have not yet seen it. Here’s what I will do, though. I will keep an eye out for this thing and if I see it I’ll be sure to inform the police.”
“Um…uh…ok?” they both stammer.
“Now are you sure I can’t get you some peppermint tea or coffee to take along with you?” Selene asks.
“No,” the man tells her. “We’ll just get going now.”
“Oh okay then,” Selene says. “Please drive safely and I’ll be sure to look out for this bear-like thing. Good bye.”
“Bye,” the couple says in unison dazedly.
The door closes and the man and woman leave. As they get closer to their car I hear the woman turn to her husband and ask, “Do you think she believed us?”
“No,” he mutters back to her, “I don’t.”
The purr of the engine fills my ears as I watch their car disappear into the night.
Wait a minute, I think, awareness just beginning to seep through me, trickling like acid in my veins. I believe them because that is exactly what it looks like—a giant demented bear-like creature—but Max, he was in the orchards too. Was he running away from it or does that mean he . . .
Oh. My. God.
My head starts spinning and my stomach feels as though it has just been pummeled by a gigantic bowling ball.
No, no, no, I think, wishing the bad news away, but the more I think about it, the more the past plagues me with its undeniable facts. Everything fits together perfectly now like one of those thousand-pieced puzzles: the reason for Max’s behavior, for the killings, and the explanation for this bear-like creature’s existence.
It all makes sense now.
And it’s all my fault, my fault because I agreed to become blood brothers with him years ago. I allowed my tainted blood to run in his veins, unaware of its future effects.
All. My. Fault.
Salvia’s filling my mouth at a ridiculous rate and vomit threatens at the back of my throat. I swallow hard and try to stand, but can’t. My legs have turned to rubber and I fall against the side of the house, slumping back down on my butt.
What do I do now? I think. Do I go into Max’s room? Do I talk to him now? Or do I go home and ask for help? I don’t know.
“How long has it been now?” Mom enters the kitchen.
“Two hours and fifty-three minutes,” I tell her.
“Oh,” she says softly, making her way to the sink. “She, uh…she should be back home soon then.”
“I hope so,” is all I can say.
My mom fills up a glass with water and then slugs it down.
Nellie sits at the kitchen table next to me, looking back and forth between Mom and I as she asks, “Is this her first time out since that disastrous incident?”
“Yes.” Mom nods.
“Well, I suggest you get the first aid kit out before she gets here,” Nellie tells the both of us. “Just in case…”
It’s been hours now and the Newbergs have—no doubt—been waiting on pins and needles for me. I can just picture Logan now, pacing around and around, either in the kitchen or downstairs, fretting over the unknown. I know that what I’m doing is not exactly fair to them, but I honestly cannot face them right now.
Turning my head in the direction of Max’s window I sigh. To enter or not enter, I suppose that is the question right now, isn’t it?
I take a deep breath and get onto my hands and knees, crawling carefully to his window, trying to keep quiet and not fall off this damn roof. I dig my fingernails into his window and am finally able to pull it up enough for me to squeeze my body through.
“Who’s there?” A half frightened, half fatigued voice calls out from the dark corner of the room as my feet drop to his floor.
“Shh,” I say. “Don’t worry, Max, it’s just me.”
“Yeah, who else?” I ask, trying to make a joke. “What other girl creeps in to your room in the middle of the night?”
“Oh,” he says, his voice groggy. Max falls back onto his pillow, exhaustion crippling his body.
I move closer to him.
“Don’t you have a freaking curfew or something to abide to?” he asks and even though his voice is still groggy with sleep and drugs I can hear the curiosity leaking into his words.
“Well, curfew is kind of negotiable in my situation,” I whisper to him as I take a seat against the wall. My face is about a foot away from his. I glance down at his left arm, which dangles off the edge of the bed, his fingers grazing the floor. He moves his hand to my shin and then glides it up to my knee.
“What happened to your knee?”
“Nothing much,” I admit, placing my hand on top of his. “I just skinned them that’s all.”
“Oh,” he mumbles and his lips look funny since his right cheek is pressed into the pillow, making them puff out like a fish. “Why is your situation negotiable?”
I swallow before answering. “Well,” I begin, “that’s part of the reason I came here to talk to you.”
His eyebrows pull together, confused.
I try to speak again, but my throat constricts. I shake my head, trying to dislodge the words, but can’t. I look into his curious eyes and have no idea how to begin telling him the story of all this chaos, this mess, which he has, unfortunately, been dragged into.
“What?” he whispers, urging me on.
“I haven’t exactly been telling you the truth these past couple of weeks,” I say and with this admittance my chest feels as though it has been caught in a vise. “I don’t know how to say this other than to say that, um, well…that everything you’re going through, all the pain you’re dealing with…it…it’s all my fault.”
“Your fault?” he asks, but when the words come out it sounds more like a conformation to me.
I nod, feeling a sharp stab beneath my breastbone.
“What are you talking about?” he asks, scooting closer to the edge of his bed, trying to meet my eyes, but I refuse to lift my gaze just yet.
“My family, the Newbergs,” I begin. “They adopted me for one specific reason.” I take a deep rattling breath in. “They adopted me because I’m the savior.”
I look into his eyes and find nothing but confusion. “What does that mean?”
“It means that I can transform into a wolf,” I tell him.
“Yes,” I say, “and I know how ridiculous that sounds, but I can even prove it if you want me to.”
He pulls his hand away from me, resting it beneath his chest.
“Everything on the news about that wolf rescuing people. That’s me,” I explain. “I save people. I hear when they’re in trouble and then I go save them. That’s how I get here each night. I run. It’s quicker and less of a hassle than driving.”
“Max?” I whisper.
His dark eyes meet mine.
“I know what is happening to you,” I tell him. “And I am so sorry, but I promise to help you find a cure for it.”
“How do you know?” he asks, his voice just barely a whisper.
“I know because of what I’ve already done to you,” I say and then point to his half torn off ear, which is no longer bandaged, but is now covered in scabs and shiny with a greenish alien-like goo. “If only I knew—”
“Wait a minute,” he says, propping himself up onto his elbow. “That was…”
I nod, the muscles in my face as tight as ever.
“But how did you find me?” he asks. “How did you know I was there?”
“I heard voices,” I explain. “That’s what always happens before I run off to save people. It must have been yours and Selene’s.”
Eyes widen and he looks frightened.
I swallow before explaining more. “I did this to you,” I say. “All of this happened because we became blood brothers a few years back. Remember that?”
“Uh-huh.” He nods.
My eyes start burning with saltwater.
“So . . .” he begins silently. “You’ve known this whole time then?”
“No,” I say, shaking my head. “I just sort of figured everything out today.”
Silence lapses between us again, but then a sob comes up into my throat and shakes me, spilling the tears from my eyes.
“Yes?” I try to say calmly.
“Listen to me,” he whispers, placing his hand back on my knee. “I don’t want you blaming yourself for this.”
I blink fast now as though this will help fight off the storm of the tears trying to force their way out. I shake my head, my lip trembling as I say, “But how can’t I blame myself when you’ve been suffering so much.”
“Juna,” he begins, “I was the one who wanted to be blood brothers. You were kind of skeptical about the whole idea at first. Remember that?”
“Juna, did you know that this was going to happen to you at—what?—age twelve?” he asks, leaning closer to me.
“No,” I admit. “But—”
“What?” he asks.
I let out an angry sigh. “It just sucks a lot.”
“Yeah, it does,” he says in a heated undertone. “It definitely does. But that’s behind us now. Nothing good will come by moping over it because we can’t change it. We gotta focus on the present now, gotta look at the things we do have control of. Okay?”
I nod, taking in a deep breath of air.
He caresses my knee with his thumb, trying to soothe me and it’s working some. The corners of his mouth curve into that smile of his I’ve always adored and have longed to see. His optimism stuns me.
“What the hell?” I choke.
“What?” he asks.
“How can you be so calm,” I question him, “when you’re the one who is going through the worst of it. I mean, you can’t even control it can you?”
“No,” he says, glancing down at my knee. “I can’t control when I change or when I am changed, but I still see bits and pieces of what’s happening. It scares the shit out of me, but to tell you the truth”—his dark, yet hopeful eyes meet mine again—“it’s a hell of a lot less scary now with things being the way they are.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that I’m glad you know about it now,” he admits. “I hated not being able to tell you anything. Thought it would be better if you just assumed I didn’t like you anymore than to allow you to get involved in this mess—”
“Is it better, knowing that I was the one who caused this mess for you?” I ask.
“Um,” he says shakily, his eyes welling with tears, but he can’t get his words out. He just nods and swallows. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him cry and I know, he’s trying to hold back the tears, but they topple down his scratched up cheeks anyhow. Max lets out a ragged sigh and then whispers, “Juna…I love you.”
These words catch me by surprise and make my heart jerk against my ribs.
“I’d rather you know that,” he tells me, “than to keep secrets from you and pretend that I don’t care for you anymore.”
“I love you too,” I whisper through my tears.
She’s hurt, I think in a panic. She’s hurt and she isn’t strong enough to get back home.
What can we do?
Nothing. We cannot do a damn thing because we don’t know where the hell she is.
“Logan?” My mother asks.
“What?” I grumble.
“Go get some sleep,” she tells me. “I can wait up for her and let you know when she gets back.”
“What if she can’t get back?” I ask. “What if she’s hurt and can’t make it back?”
Mom makes a soft, wet sound, you know the kind that is made when a person is about to speak and the tongue unglues itself from the roof of the mouth, but nothing comes out. Yeah, no matter how hard she tries, she can’t get a freaking thing out. She doesn’t know what to say to that.
“What if she’s down the road?” I say, sitting up straighter in my chair. “Struggling to get home, while we just sit here?”
“That’s a possibility,” Mom agrees. “How about I’ll go drive around for a little bit.” She scoops her car keys up from the kitchen counter. “And you can stay here in case she comes home. Call my cell if she gets back before I do.”
I snuggle beneath the sheets with Max, cocooned in his arms, our feet pressing against each other and the tips of our noses touching. My hands are pressed against his chilly chest. I’ve been here for a couple minutes and I don’t want to leave him. My body physically aches with the mere thought of running back home.
Home, I say the word in my head, analyzing it.
I decide right then and there that home is not a place, but rather a feeling—a feeling of warmth, joy, and comfort. A feeling that always resonates within me when I am with Max.
Max is my home.
I explain everything to him, from the nightmares at camp up until this very moment. “Wow,” he whispers, shaking his head. “That’s insane.”
“It really is,” I say. “Sometimes I feel like my head is gonna explode. I’ve seen a lot of ugly things people have done to each other and it…well, it sucks.”
Max rubs my back. “Sorry,” he says.
“I feel like the rest of my life is going to be incredibly depressing,” I admit.
He nods and is quiet for a moment, but then adds, “Well, don’t you get some kind of satisfaction from helping people? I mean, you’re saving lives Juna. You’re a hero—or heroine actually. Like superwoman.”
“I do, but…I just hate seeing the violence,” I tell him. “I saw a little five-year-old almost stabbed to death by his own father. I also saved this girl who was being…raped and…that really bothered me. Got me thinking about Lylan again.”
He squeezes me to him for a moment, pressing his lips to my forehead and then relaxes.
“I wonder a lot about why me,” I admit. “Why was I chosen to be this savior person because sometimes I don’t feel up to the job or even right for the job?”
“I’m not surprised,” Max responds. “I mean, don’t get me wrong—it’s definitely weird—but your entire life has consisted of you saving people.”
Something about his words strike me and I guess it’s because I have never thought about it in that way, but he is right. Ever since I was little I have always stood up for others, have always fought against bullies. “Yeah.” I shrug. “I guess so.”
A smile skims across his face.
“How are you dealing with everything?” I ask, skimming my right foot along the outside of his calf muscle. He shivers.
“Well,” he begins, “it hasn’t been easy, but like I said earlier, I feel better with you knowing.”
“Did you actually go to a doctor or was that just a—”
“Lie?” he finishes my sentence. “Yup.”
“Oh.” Figures, I think, since he is so good at it. Of course I believed him. He should be a lawyer.
“Selene is worried about what they’ll think of me,” he explains. “But I really did go to the E.R. when part of my ear got torn off.”
My stomach churns at the thought. “How’s it doing by the way?” I ask, glancing at it. It is definitely strange and sort of deformed looking with half of it missing, but it seems like the doctors did an adequate job stitching it up.
“Still hurts,” he tells me, “but it’s doing a lot better.”
“I’m really sorry about that,” I say contritely.
“It’s fine,” he says, forcing a smile. “Can’t really blame you for using self defense when I tried to kill you.”
“Well…no,” I agree. “But I still feel bad about it.”
I push on to the next subject. “How often do you change?” I ask.
“It’s been happening about every other night,” he tells me. “But it isn’t like a set thing. I’ve gone a whole week without changing—boy, that was heaven.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Yeah,” Max notes, gazing deep into my eyes. “It’s hell every time and then when I change back I’m exhausted. Sometimes I sleep till late into the afternoon. That’s why I’ve been so tired lately.”
I inform him about my abnormally fast healing powers. “Is that the same for you?” I ask.
“No. Any injuries I get seem to take forever to heal.”
I close my eyes for a minute, my body aching all over. Everything that happened to him is either the opposite or worse of what I’ve gone through.
“Hey,” Max whispers, touching his nose to mine. “What’s up Tiger?”
I open my eyes and find myself angry. Furious. I want to scream, but instead I tell him, “I hate this.” Tears fill my eyes. “I hate this so much.”
“I know,” he says and the next thing I know I’m pressing my head underneath his chin and sobbing into his shirt. “Shhh, shhh,” he whispers, stroking my hair.
We lie there for another half hour, until my breath steadies. “Well,” I sigh, pulling away from him, a tinge guilty about the amount of time I’ve spent here. “I should probably get going. The Newbergs are probably worried sick about me.”
“I’ll walk you to the door,” Max adds, sitting up as the sheets pool around him.
“No,” I say, rising from the bed. “I’ll just climb out the window again. I don’t want Selene to hear me.”
“Okay,” he whispers. “But please be careful.”
A mischievous spark lights up Max’s eyes and his mouth twitches into a smile, dimpling both cheeks. “Hey, before you go can I ask you a question?”
“Um,” I begin skeptically, “sure.”
“Can I kiss you?”
His favorite question coaxes a smile out of me and I nod as memories of camp come flooding back into my mind.
I bend down, pushing my fingers through his hair as I draw his face to mine, until at last our lips meet. His hands glide up my hips, both index fingers curling around the belt loops of my jeans, tugging me closer to him.
He sighs into my mouth and suddenly I feel alive and whole again. Warm, despite his frozen skin. Max is my home, but he is also the sunlight spilling into a house, across the wooden floors and I am a cat, sprawling out in this warmth, forever wanting to bask in its glory.
I can’t imagine a life without him.
I have to find a cure.
I will find a cure.
The seconds tick and an image of Logan pacing nervously in the kitchen enters my mind. With an ache in my chest, I pull away from Max.
“No,” Max moans, tugging me to him again. I sigh and press my lips to his once more. This time his hands slide underneath the hem of my shirt, his icy palms pressing against my lower back. I shiver. When our lips part, neither one of us pulls away. I lean my forehead into his, both of our eyes close, and we just breathe. He removes one hand from my back and hangs it onto my right arm. Caressing my lower back with the thumb of his opposite hand, back and forth, back and forth, so comforting that my feet cement to the floor.
“Bye Max,” I sigh, reluctantly dropping my hands from him. I turn for the window, yank it open, and then carefully climb out, but before I pull it back down I whisper, “Promise me you’ll stay alive till I come back, okay?”
“Promise.” He nods.
You know that nauseous, disgusting feeling you get in the pit of your stomach before you barf—yep, that’s happening to me now. Once your mouth starts overflowing with saliva you’re pretty much doomed. Saliva hasn’t poured into my mouth yet, but I’ve got a feeling it will any minute now.
Mom is still out in her car searching for Juna, while Nellie sleeps on the couch, snoring like a freaking sumo wrestler.
It’s two thirty AM and I don’t know how much longer I am going to have to wait. I’m about ready to—
“Are you okay?” I shout before I can even see her, scrambling like—as Nellie would put it—a three-legged mouse at a cat convention.
Juna enters the kitchen before I’ve even made it two steps across the linoleum floor and what do you know—all except for her bloodied knees—she is fine! I pull her to me, wrapping my arms tightly around her. “You’re okay,” I say out of breath.
“Uh-huh,” she wheezes.
I pull back. “Where were you?” I ask, the words rushing out my mouth. “What happened?”
“Well,” she begins, moving to the table, “you’re probably not going to be happy about it.” She sits down, sighing.
“Why?” I ask, confused.
She eyes me warily before answering.
“Is Juna back?” Nellie yells from the other room.
“Yes,” I call back, annoyed, still holding my gaze with Juna.
“Oh, goodie,” Nellie squeaks and I hear her fat body lifting off the couch.
“Why?” I whisper again.
Nellie waddles like a penguin into the kitchen. “Juna,” she says cheerily, “thank goodness you’re back. Logan?”
“What?” I mutter.
“Where’s your mother?”
“Oh!”—I slap my forehead—“She went out looking for Juna,” I say. “Can you please call her and let her she’s home safe now.”
“Sure thing,” Nellie says, turning around to scoop the phone out of its cradle.
I turn to Juna, eager to get down to the bottom of this. “Juna?” I say and I hate how whiney my voice sounds.
Her lips part and it’s right there on the tip of her tongue, but she keeps hesitating.
Spit it out woman! I want to yell.
“I saw Max,” she admits and she says it so quickly that at first I’m not all that sure I heard her correctly.
“I saw”—her eyes drop to the table—“Max,” she repeats.
“What?” I say again, anger and hurt buzzing in my voice. She lied to me.
“I’m sorry,” she says, leaning forward in her seat, trying to meet my gaze. “But I had to.”
“Why?” I ask, bitterly. “Was he in some kind of trouble?”
I’m back to pacing again. The linoleum floor creaks and groans beneath my feet. Nellie totters into the kitchen again, just getting off the phone with my mom. She looks perplexed, probably wondering why I am so freaking mad.
Oh, I’m mad all right. Furious actually. “Why’d you do it?” I spit.
“Now hold on,” Nellie cautions. “What’s going on?”
I point to Juna. “Sh-she”—I can barely force my words out—“went to go see Max!”
“You didn’t?” Nellie’s voice goes low.
“She did!” I snap.
“Wait a second.” Juna rises from the chair. “Look, I know I wasn’t supposed to do that, but I found out some very important info. Things I wouldn’t have learned had I not gone.”
Mom’s headlights glide up the driveway.
“Oh, good,” Nellie mutters. “Brianne’s here. Hold on a minute.”—Nellie holds up a finger to Juna—“I’ll be right back.”
Nellie rushes to the door, but Mom reaches it before she does and pushes past my fat old granny to see Juna. “You alright?” My mother’s voice shakes with distress.
“Mom,” I begin, “she—”
“Logan,” Juna yells at me, “shut the hell up! Okay? Think you can do that for like a second?”
My eyes widen in outrage and every inch of my body feels like it’s on fire.
“I went to Max’s,” she tells my mother. “I was afraid he was going to die without knowing why he is sick.”
Mom draws in a strained breath.
“While I was there,” Juna continues, “I saw something awful, something I should have figured out earlier. That monster…is Max.”
“Lord help us,” Nellie exhales.
That is what I call an abusive relationship.
The next morning I am still furious.
As exhausted as I was last night—or morning, actually—I didn’t get much sleep. I kept thinking about Juna and Max, wondering what exactly they were doing together.
I get out of bed, lumber across the hall into the bathroom, and take a leak, and as I am sleepily urinating I try not to think about the mess Juna has unintentionally gotten herself into, but I can’t help it. I start seeing images of this bear-like creature and wonder what Max looks like when he shifts into this beast. It must be some kind of freak show.
I change into some clothes, an orange t-shirt and some jeans, and then head up to the kitchen. The minute I step onto the checkered linoleum floor I hear a good morning.
Juna sits at the table, drinking a glass of water. My stomach tightens.
I don’t say anything. I just move over to the coffee pot, dumping out the old grounds and then snatching a bag of fresh ones to pour into it from the freezer. I fill up the pot with water and then click the power button on. I turn around, lean my rump against the counter, and wait. My arms fold tightly across my chest and every muscle in my body seizes with tension.
“You sleep okay?” she asks.
I shake my head, refusing to look at her. No, I did not sleep okay, I think irritably. I would have if you hadn’t lied to me. You freaking liar!
My jaw hardens.
I listen as the coffee streams into the pot, listen to the grounds make little exploding puff noises, but I ain’t going to listen to her.
Like a cat approaching a mouse she saunters over from the table to me. I turn my head to the window and my arms squeeze tighter against my chest.
Nothing but silence stretches between us.
She just keeps standing there, staring at me as she leans against the opposite countertop, unaffected. This makes me fidgety.
“What?” I shout.
Her eyebrows pull together disapprovingly like I did something wrong. Me? I can’t believe it. She’s the one who lied. I should be the one with the tightly knitted eyebrows, scrutinizing her, and so this is exactly what I do.
“What’s your problem?” she asks, color rising into her cheeks.
“Don’t have one,” I grumble. “You’re the one with the problem.”
“You’re a liar,” I say as blatantly as possible.
“You’re still ticked off about last night?” she stares at me like I am some immature child.
I say nothing.
“If I told you where I was really going you’d probably have come after me and caused a huge mess,” she tells me.
“A mess?” I ask, bitterly. “You mean bigger than the one you’ve already caused?”
She is lost for words and I suddenly have this bitter taste in my mouth like I drank a bottle of vinegar.
“I can’t believe how immature you are,” she says through clenched teeth. “Don’t you think I regret what I did?”
She doesn’t wait for an answer.
“Of course I do and if I could take it all back I would…because not only have I destroyed his life, but a bunch of other people’s too. I feel beyond horrible about it and now I’m just trying to fix it, but apparently you don’t care about that part. All you care about is dwelling on the sad little fact that I lied to you. Yeah, I lied to you. I lied to you so that I could figure out how to save Max. I hope you realize what a humongous pathetic jerk you are.”
She storms out of the kitchen, bumping into Nellie on her way out. “Juna?” she cries, but Juna keeps marching down the hallway, back into her room, muttering, “Leave me alone.”
Nellie turns to me. “What on earth was that about?”
I close my eyes and sigh.
Being grounded sucks.
I know, weird, right?
But seriously, it really does because not only can’t I go see Max, but I can’t talk to him on the phone either.
I’ve been grounded for a week, so that means I have three more days left until I can go see Max again.
I am currently sitting at the kitchen table with my arms folded tightly across my chest. I glance up at the clock. It’s in the shape of a fly swatter. A fly counts the seconds, moving about the clock in a circular motion, seeming to take an eternity before coming full circle to complete a single minute.
Not wanting to further torture myself, I leave for the deck, my feet burning as I step across the hot wood.
I quickly take a seat in a lawn chair and then close my eyes.
The house is unusually quiet this morning apart from Connor who practices piano downstairs. He plays quite well for such a young age. Leaning my head against the chair I try to relax to the music, but once the sliding glass door squeaks open I realize the impossibility of that wish. I don’t have to peek to see who it is.
“Hey,” Logan says hesitantly, moving about the porch. “Ouch, it’s hot out here!”
I don’t answer.
He takes a seat beside me. I know this without opening my eyes because I hear the chair’s painful creak as he does it. “Juna?”
I do nothing. I only grind my teeth together, so hard it feels as though one of them might split right down the middle.
“Okay,” he says. “Since you’re just going to ignore me I wanted to tell you that I’m sorry for what I said earlier. I feel really bad about it.”
“I was stressed,” Logan tells me, sighing. “I thought you were hurt again or worse and when I found out that you went to Max’s house…well, honestly, it really ticked me off.” He pauses for a moment, probably expecting a reply from me, but I don’t give him one, so he continues, “Anyhow…sorry.”
Without opening my eyes, I nod.
He says nothing more and then shuffles back into he house.
He screams my name in the middle of the night.
Throwing off the sheets, I scramble out of bed and exit the girls’ room as quickly and as quietly as possible.
I pull on a pair of sneakers and then sprint down the driveway, diving into the air and then hurtling myself to where I need to be, red and white lights twisting all around me as I run.
As I come to an abrupt halt gasoline immediately fills my nostrils. It’s thick and smothering. I feel as though I am drowning in it.
I stand before a gas station in the middle of nowhere. There is a road that stretches endlessly in both directions with monstrous sized pine trees bordering the edge of it and only one flickering lamppost that barely sheds enough light onto the street. It’s the tiny kind of gas station with only two pumps to serve the public. It kind of looks like one Logan and I passed on our way to Selene’s house and maybe it is. After all, I did hear Max scream out my name.
So where is he then? I wonder.
I am hesitant about crossing this lifeless street towards the gas station because there is too much about all of this that doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t like how the air reeks of fuel from so far away, how a car sits by its lonesome self with a pump still pressed into its side, how I can’t see anyone from inside or outside the convenience store, or how painfully quiet it is.
Last time it was this quiet Max attacked me.
So, yeah, I’m little hesitant.
I inhale a deep breath of air and then do it. I cross the road, the smell of gasoline burning stronger and stronger with each step I take. With my hackles raised, I prepare for the worst. My heartbeat vibrates down my tail and pounds in my ears, so hard I feel as though my head will explode.
I come up behind the empty car and see the problem. To my left, in the darkest corner of the parking lot sits a large gas delivery truck. A black tube runs from its side into the ground, draining gas, but obviously too much. Fuel bubbles over onto the pavement and creeps toward my feet, creating a massive puddle that worries me. One little spark and the whole northwest will feel its explosion. It makes me wonder what happened to the truck driver.
My ears prick forward to a crackling sound coming from inside the store. Moving around the puddle, I head toward the front door, pressing my nose against the glass. I try to see inside, but find nothing other than stacks of food and various road trip items blocking my view, nothing unusual. I move to the right, trying to find a different angle and luckily the store is built sort of like a fish tank with three walls of glass to peer through. I pass a display caracole of sunglasses before I hear that crackling sound again. I pause and listen:
I finally see the shards of glass crumbled at the right side of the building and as I turn the corner, maneuvering around the bits and pieces of glass, I see him hunched over, gnawing on a dead woman’s ripped off leg. He is hidden between the beer and frozen foods aisle, his ginormous hairy back turned to me. Behind them lies another mangled body, nothing but blood, shreds of cloth, and exposed bone.
I can’t believe this. I knew plenty well Max was dangerous, but I had fooled myself into thinking that when it came to people he had some sort of restraint. I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but now that it has I can’t see how I ever believed that it wouldn’t.
I hear my heart beat a few seconds more before a snarl rips from between my teeth. Max whips around, blood dripping from his fangs. He drops the leg and rises to his full height. I bolt from where I came from, across the road, and back into the trees.
Behind me, I hear things tumbling and glass shattering, but I keep on running. Trees whiz past me, twigs snap, and once again I am afraid for my life. I take a sharp right turn and hide behind the trunk of a tree, desperately trying to keep my breath quiet as I wait for Max to pass me.
And he does. In a matter of seconds, Max rips past me without a moment’s pause.
I exhale, but it doesn’t mean I’m relieved.
The bodies. I can’t leave them there for the police to find. I have to destroy the evidence that Max was ever there.
But how? I wonder, panting, and then the answer hits me with a big fat Duh!
So, I race back to the gas station transforming back into my human self, super glad I snagged my shoes before I left the house this time because once again I am confronted with glass. The diamond dust of it crunches beneath my sneakers as I step into the store.
I remind myself that I have to act quickly before someone catches me or before the place blows up. My heart pulses in both my throat and in my fingertips as I move through the shop.
Blood edges around the cash register, so I peer over the counter. Another body. I gulp.
I pinch my eyes tight for a second and feel my body shaking. You panic you die, I hear his words. Exhaling, I sweep some fallen hair out of my eyes and then mutter, “It’s gonna be ok.”
To the right of me, drips green goop, making yet another puddle on the floor. One of these three left the Slurpee machine on before Max stormed in. Looks like Mountain Dew flavored. What a shame.
Scanning the aisle ways, I finally see what I need. A lighter. I snatch one up and then get the heck out of there.
I dart across the street and back to where I am most comfortable—the woods—thankful that not a single car has cruised past here yet. With trembling hands, I flick on the flame, testing to see if it works first, and then chuck it toward the gas station.
I don’t wait to see what happens. I already know. Instead, I just run. I dive into the woods and zoom toward Selene’s house, feeling a blast of heat from behind.
Stopping at the edge of the orchards, I stare up at the white farmhouse, the smell of smoke thick in the air. Not too far away from me, tree frogs croak and crickets chirp, singing their peaceful songs to the starry night sky. It’s hard to believe that some sort of calm can exist among such chaos.
Every room in the house is lit, shedding a yellowish glow onto the front lawn. Selene’s silhouette passes by Max’s window. I can hear her speaking, but I can’t tell what it is that she says. It’s good to know he is home now and is somewhat ok.
I plop down into a sitting position because my back legs are shaking too hard to keep me stably upright.
Now what do I do? I wonder. Should I climb up to his room and talk to him? Or do I go back home? I mean, eventually I’ll need to head back there, especially since I am grounded. The problem is that I’m too shaken up to know what to do next.
All I know is this: the world has completely flipped upside down on me. It used to be black and white. There were good people and bad people and this had always been easily discernable for me until now. Now the world is gray. How can someone be equal parts good and bad? And what does that make me? I’m supposed to catch murderers, not cover up their homicidal messes, but Max is my friend and I know this is all just a terrible, terrible accident.
I picture little Noah with her mother at that convenience store, both of them ripped to shreds and drowning in a pool of blood. Would I still consider it a terrible accident and protect my friend? Or would I want Max brought to justice.
I honestly can’t answer that right now.
The next day I am shaky and quiet.
I just lay there on my mattress curled up on my side, still seeing those mangled and bloody bodies in my head. I can’t get rid of them. It comes to the point where I refuse to look at anything red in the girls’ room.
“I know you’re awake,” Noah pounces on me with Sampson the alligator in hand, his fangs pushing into my nose.
I roll onto my back, facing her, pushing Sampson out of my face as I do so. “How did you know?” I ask.
“You breathe differently.”
“Oh yeah?” I cock my head, my hair fanning out on the pillow. “How?”
“Hmm, well, you do this a lot.” Noah takes a moment to sigh dramatically and then giggles afterward.
“I sigh a lot?” I ask, smiling.
“Yeah,” she nods, giggling. “It’s your thinking breathing. Mommy does it too.”
It amazes me how observant she is.
“What are you thinking about?” Noah asks, pulling Sampson in closer to her chest, resting her head to his.
What it feels like to murder someone, I think, but for Noah’s sake I say, “Pancakes!”
“Ooh,” she squeals, clasping her tiny little hands together. “I like the way you think!”