Eyes forward—just ignore the werewolf.
I repeated that to myself as I quickened my steps. It wasn’t hard to identify the shade who crouched over a trashcan, rifling through whatever he could find inside. Even if he hadn’t been wearing the law-required bright yellow band on his wrist to identify himself, there was just something about shades that made it easy to spot them.
They had this danger in them, this bone-deep hesitation they provoked in normal humans when a shade crossed our paths. They had a feral quality to their movements and an emptiness in their eyes, as if everything that had been real about them had drained out when they’d become infected by source.
It meant that this shade, despite appearing young for the change—he couldn’t have been older than eleven—could have torn me apart if he lost control.
Though, the fact he was out on the street, even identified, meant he had to have been a weaker specimen and on the proper medication to treat his affliction. Otherwise, he would have been properly secured at an academy.
“Don’t stare, Hera,” my friend Moa said.
“How can he be out on the streets?” I asked, keeping my voice low as we passed by the shade. “I thought we had groups to keep them out of sight.”
Moa gave me a sharp look, one that reminded me just how different our lives were.
Moa wasn’t privy to reality, to the danger shades posed. She got to live in ignorance, to pretend the world was a safe place while I watched as people were slaughtered by uncontrolled shades. Then again, her family ran a little consignment shop whereas my mother was a senator and headed the committee for shade control, and my father ran one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the country.
I was Hera Weston, the only child of Zachary and Regina Weston, which meant I didn’t have the luxury of not knowing.
Still, I played along, pretended I had no idea what her censure was for because there was no reason to have this fight again. A nonchalant sip of my water bottle helped to sell that. “What?”
“He’s just trying to get some food. Do you have any idea how many shades are kicked out of their homes when they change? How many can’t get hired after that?”
“They don’t change. They’re infected and they die,” I countered, but kept walking so she couldn’t give me another long winded, politically correct explanation about how they didn’t really ‘die.’
Moa was one of those who thought that shades were just altered, that they were still the people they’d been when human. It wasn’t true, of course, and if she paid any attention to the news or in school, she’d have known that.
Source—a substance that leaked through invisible tears between our realm and the darkness—could infect some humans. When it happened, that infection caused mutations so dramatic that only a fool would consider the resulting shade to be the same person as the human they’d been. The infections seemed random, since the tears could be neither tracked nor stopped.
It was just part of life.
“Besides,” I added, trying to offer the next words like an olive branch as we passed the shops that lined the outdoor mall, “that’s why we have academies set up, to take care of them safely and determine how best to treat them.”
“Those academies are prisons,” Moa snapped, tugging my arm to stop us, drawing the same line in the sand we’d danced around for years. She faced off against me as if we were engaged in some battle instead of standing in front of a high couture boutique shop. “Kids are stolen from their parents and thrown into the institutes. They’re often experimented on, drugged and who knows what else.”
“You need to stop reading the tabloids. Have you ever even been to one?”
“No,” she admitted softly. “Have you?”
“Yes. Two years ago, I went with my mother to see Jasmine Academy. I can promise you, none of what you’re talking about was going on there. The shades were happy, healthy and unable to hurt themselves or others. Isn’t that the goal?”
Moa shook her head. “You are naïve, Hera. Do you think places like that want people to know what’s really going on? Do you think they’re going to just show all the bad things they do when the VIPs come around? It’s all a publicity stunt so people tell the government to keep sending them all the money they want. It’s just about creating enough fear so we don’t pay any attention to the atrocities they do there.”
I sighed and let the conversation drop. I could argue with her all day—and I had before—but Moa had no idea about the real world. I wasn’t angry with her about that—I envied her some of the time.
It would have been nice to fall asleep each night with no idea of what lurked in the shadows. I still remembered my first time seeing a fully changed werewolf, the horror as it had pulled at the silver chains wrapped around it, as it had roared. My mother had brought me with her, had worried when I’d become enamored with shades as so many teenagers did.
The power, the rebellion, the danger of something so powerful was intoxicating and most people went through a phase where they thought they could change them. Why we women felt the need to do that, to find fixer-uppers who we had to work on, I didn’t understand anymore.
Not after witnessing the bone-deep terror at coming face-to-face with a shade that could rake its claws through my throat in a heartbeat. I’d realized that day that the world was far more dangerous than most people knew.
Moa still had that fascination because her parents were bleeding hearts who hadn’t taught her better. She’d learn, eventually. Everyone did, because the world didn’t let people keep their illusions for long.
So, instead of furthering that line of thought, I pointed at a kiosk up ahead. “Let’s look at the necklaces up there.”
Moa let out a long breath, as if reining in her own temper, as if I were the difficult one to deal with, then nodded. “Sure. Maybe we can get matching ones.”
The selection wasn’t great, but it offered the perfect distraction. We were only weeks away from the new academic year starting, and we hadn’t gotten into the same schools.
Moa had gotten into a local state school, something that would work well enough for her to get the business degree she wanted so she could help and eventually take over her family’s shop.
I, on the other hand, had the acceptance letter on my desk from one of the premiere colleges in the country. I’d had good grades, but the fact that the building had a ‘Weston Wing,’ and my last name was Weston had gotten me in. In fact, I hadn’t even filled out an application. One call from my father and the doors had sprung open.
Moa had held the letter in her hands, staring as if it were the holy grail. Me? I’d tossed it to my desk because fuck that. Going across the country to some university sounded dreadful to me. It felt like another nail in the coffin of my future, the one my parents had laid out for me before I’d ever been born.
The right education, the right career, the right husband. It was all a path to the perfect little Weston life they wanted me to have. And I’d trudged along that path because what other choice did I have? Even now, at nineteen years old, I was stuck. An adult by age but a child by freedom.
An arm wrapped around my waist, spinning me before lips pressed to mine. Aaron swallowed down my startled gasp, then only laughed when I smacked his chest.
“Don’t sneak up on me,” I snapped.
He offered a crooked smile. “Don’t stand there looking like you want a kiss then. You never know who might just take you up on it.”
I shook my head, grinning at his playfulness.
The right spouse. That had my smile disappearing.
Aaron was that. The son of a business associate of my father’s—our parents had basically planned the wedding when we were still toddling around the playground in diapers. I’d grown up knowing what was expected of me, had fallen into line before I’d gotten old enough to question it.
Besides, Aaron wasn’t that bad. He was charming, handsome, rich. The sex was tolerable, and he never treated me badly. I didn’t have butterflies, or head-over-heels nonsense, but I was pretty sure those things were only in cheesy books and movies.
In the real world, ‘not bad’ was the best a person could hope for.
“What are you looking at?” he asked as he tugged me against him.
“Necklaces,” I explained. “Moa and I were going to get matching ones.”
“What about me?”
“What about you?” Moa asked with a smile. She’d always liked Aaron, probably more than I ever had, but she’d been respectful of our relationship no matter what.
“Well, I mean, we’ve been running around together all this time. I should be part of the whole necklace thing, too.”
I rolled my eyes. Aaron could be awfully clingy at time, but he wasn’t wrong. He’d been friends with Moa and me, like some weird love triangle, for most of our lives.
“I’m not wearing two necklaces.”
Moa reached out and picked up a small white paper that had hung on a hook. A silver charm dangled on it, and she held it out to me. “Why don’t we do chains? Then we can pick the charm we want each of us to have, and we’ll all have those matching charms wherever we go.”
“That is cringingly sentimental, and I love it.” Aaron snatched a charm from the wall of product. “Look, a bear—this one is perfect for me because I’m big and tough and super manly.”
Moa smirked and grabbed a rat. “Or this one because you’re constantly shoving cheese into your mouth and are rather annoying.”
Aaron put a hand against his chest as if she’d struck him with her words. “Fine, you don’t get a charm from me. Good job.”
I laughed at their antics as I scanned the available options. What was for me? What would represent me enough that I’d want my two best friends to wear it?
Aaron settled on a racoon, which seemed fitting. He was hard to ignore, stayed up way too late and was rather entertaining. Moa chose a paintbrush, because of her love of art.
My gaze landed on one, and I knew it was perfect to represent me. A silver music note, something elegant and simple and so intertwined with who I was that it felt obvious.
I’d sung my entire life. In fact, my mother said I hadn’t learned to speak sentences so much as verses. The headphones hanging around my neck were a testament to my love of music, to the fact I couldn’t fathom a few hours without putting on the large earcups and disappearing into the sounds, into how they took away everything happening in my life I couldn’t control.
Music made me feel as if I still had a hold of something, and singing was my way of putting my voice into a world that always felt too loud, to make a mark when the world didn’t want to hear me.
“That’s perfect.” Aaron took all the charms and chains to the salesperson to pay for them, Moa now complaining.
Aaron or I always paid for things, since our parents were far better off than Moa’s. What was a hundred bucks between friends?
After Aaron handed them over, we hooked the charms on the chains, then put them on. It was a surreal feeling, like an acknowledgment of how much our lives were about to change, with all of us going to different schools, on different paths of life that would take us different directions.
Aaron and I would come back together—we didn’t have much choice there—but I wondered what would happen to Moa. Was this the end of our little group?
The three charms sat next to one another, cool against my warm skin, and I had a moment of wishing things wouldn’t change.
Unfortunately, I had a feeling nothing could stop that from happening.
* * * *
“I need to get home,” I complained to Aaron three hours later.
Moa had already abandoned us, since she was by far the most responsible. She’d taken off around ten, but Aaron hadn’t been ready to turn in, and I was easily bribed with a caramel macchiato.
“I’m leaving tomorrow.” Aaron’s voice lost some of its humor.
“You’re only going to be a few hours’ drive away from me,” I reminded him. “And we’ll talk on the phone all the time.”
“It won’t be the same. Come on, Hera, can’t you at least pretend you’ll miss me?”
I blew out a breath, sick of that question. He hurled it a lot, and it had taken me a while to understand why.
In the end? I just didn’t think I was an affectionate person, not like he was, not like he wanted me to be. He wanted someone who called in the morning because I just couldn’t stand not hearing his voice. He wanted someone who couldn’t imagine life without him.
And I tried, I really did. I set alarms on my phone to remind me to text or call him, and I did everything I could to play the part he wanted me to, even if I never felt it.
“I will miss you,” I lied. “I just think you’re being a bit dramatic. It isn’t like we’re never going to see each other. We can visit every weekend, and we’ll have all summer together. But I can say you’re going to have a miserable flight tomorrow if you don’t get some sleep.”
He let out a slow sigh, and the lines in his face, the ones put there because I wasn’t living up to what he needed, hurt.
So I slid my arm around him, trying to be and do what he wanted. “I’m sorry,” I offered. “I think I’m just nervous about the move, about how everything changes, you know?”
He nodded, but a shadow in his eyes said he probably recognized the change of subject when he saw it. “Yeah, I know. It’ll be good, though. We’ll get out of this town, out on our own. And, who knows? Maybe I can get my classes on the right days and split my time between your place and mine.”
I smiled even as I cringed at the thought. I wanted my own space, my own life, and I wouldn’t get that if Aaron was my shadow the whole time. Still, I’d upset him enough, so I nodded. “Yeah, that would be nice.”
He nodded, as if it had been decided. “Why don’t we—” A yawn broke his statement.
“That’s it—you’re exhausted, and you have a long day tomorrow. You should go home and get a few hours of sleep before you have to leave.”
“No goodbye sex?” He lifted an eyebrow to pair with his smirk.
“That would defeat the whole purpose of going home to get sleep. Classes don’t start for two weeks. What if I agree to fly out to you Monday? We’ll spend a week together at your place, then I’ll fly to mine. It’ll give you a few days to get set up.”
“Then we’ll christen my new apartment?”
“Sure.” I didn’t have to fake a smile at that. Sex might not have been mind-blowing, but like most things, I had a feeling that pretty good was the best a person could hope for, and Aaron’s enthusiasm went a long way.
He offered me a ride home, but I said no. If we did that, he’d talk me into ignoring the things about sleep. Besides, I’d driven myself, and I didn’t want to leave my car.
Once Aaron left, I was able to sip my coffee in silence, a benefit as my headache hadn’t gone away.
Over the past year, I’d gotten more headaches—stress, my father had told me. Getting ready to move out for the first time, to a place across the country—that was a big deal. I was preparing to leave everything I’d ever known, the people, the places, the familiarity of it all and branch out.
That would make anyone lose sleep.
It felt like something more, like something deeper, but when I couldn’t figure it out, I chose the easy answer.
The crowds had thinned, now that it was past midnight. There were those celebrating and those mourning, all drunk and stumbling and far too loud. Their voices lacked harmony, grating on my nerves, making my head pound worse.
Still, I pushed through, crossing the large outdoor shopping area with lights strung everywhere, toward the parking lot. I had a spot up on the top level. My father leased it every year so when he came for dinner, he never had to worry about finding a spot. Since he rarely came, I happily used it.
I got into the elevator, my hand shaking, my head throbbing. When the doors shut, I closed my eyes and pulled in a breath, trying to ease that tension inside me, a reaction to panic being my only guess. These attacks had kept getting worse, and even the pills my father had given me hadn’t done much to help. The only thing that seemed to help were my headphones drowning out the noise.
The elevator moved quickly, and I held the railing to keep myself steady as my stomach churned.
Relax. Deep breaths, nice and slow. I coaxed myself through it, as I had before, as my therapist had taught me. The idea I had anxiety annoyed me. I had nothing to be anxious about. It made me feel like every other rich kid who didn’t realize their life was damn near perfect so they came up with pointless little problems and blew them out of proportion.
I hadn’t ever been that person before, but it seemed I was now.
Still, I refused to let myself remain that way, so I forced my body to relax and grabbed two ibuprofens from my purse, swallowing them with my coffee even though taking pills with hot drinks wasn’t the easiest thing to do.
By the time the doors to the elevator slid open, I’d mostly gathered my wits. My head still ached, but the world seemed sharper again and nothing spun. I told myself a good night’s sleep would do the trick, that I was just up too late and dealing with Moa and Aaron had just been overwhelming.
I walked the large parking lot, toward the back where my car was. Many of the spots were filled because the floor was also used for residents who lived in the condos just across the small path. It meant the cars were all expensive, since it wasn’t a cheap place to live.
I turned the corner and froze.
Three men stood there in dark hoodies, one with a slim-jim already inside the window of a car. Their faces all turned toward me at once, and the curl of one’s lips made all that panic I’d had inside the elevator rush back into me.
This wasn’t good…