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Kate was at home. She met me on her front porch. Her mother was out with a friend and her father, my father’s Beta, was probably off handling some business matter that had been assigned to him. Before bounding up the stairs after her, I greeted Kate’s twin brother Taylor briefly as he sat on the sofa in the living room, watching a football game. Kate’s bedroom walls were Pepto-Bismol pink. She would beg to differ, but they were. She had a pink upholstered platform bed, and chic gray nightstands on either side of it. There was a faux sheepskin rug on the floor, and a stylish pink armchair in the corner. She had built-in bookcases, specially built just for her by her handyman father, and a desk large enough to accommodate her massive mess of chains and beads and wire and various jewelry-making tools. Kate had come a long way from making friendship bracelets by our creek. Now, she made real jewelry and sold it on Etsy. “How was the super-special, top-secret conference?” she asked, as she plopped down heavily in her desk chair. I kicked off my shoes and sprawled out on top of her plush comforter. “Short,” I responded, “I’m not sure why it couldn’t have just been a mind-link thing.” “What was said?” “Not much.” I pushed up and sat cross-legged in the center of Kate’s bed. “Remind me again why you don’t ever come to these pack meetings?” Her eyes widened. “To this one in particular? Because it’s the fucking Black Summit pack, Nat.” “Not this one specifically. Like, in general. Why don’t you come?” Kate shrugged one shoulder. “Because I can’t hold my own. I’m not a brave, fearless warrior like you are. I quit training the second my dad gave in to my begging. I’d rather stay home. I have sales to make, laundry to fold, naps to take.” As she spoke, my eyes wandered to the bulletin board on the wall behind her, and fell upon a photo of her and her Mate, Jesse. I immediately recognized where the picture was taken. They were standing on the bank of our secret creek, with Jesse behind Kate, his arms wrapped around her midsection, and her hands clutching his forearms. They both smiled broadly at the camera. Kate followed my gaze to the photo, and she hurriedly unpinned it from the board. She tucked it underneath a box of jewelry findings on her desk, and looked back at me nervously. Kate and Jesse met way back in November. It was amazing that they hadn’t crossed paths much, much sooner. Jesse was an Omega who lived on the edge of our territory, in an outdated little brick house with his parents that my father hadn’t gotten around to renovating. He didn’t frequent the packhouse and he mostly kept to himself. He was even homeschooled, just like Kate. They were perfect for each other—both introverted wallflowers who were perfectly content staying in every single weekend with pizza delivery and Netflix. The Moon Goddess had paired Kate with her perfect man, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous. I kept it bottled up, though. “I didn’t know you brought him there,” I said. Kate nodded. “Brought him a few times right after we met.” She spoke with uncertainty, eyeing me carefully like she was gauging my reaction. “He told me he wanted to know everything about me. Asked if the creek was still accessible.” “Why wouldn’t it be?” “It’s been quite a few years. You never know, I guess.” I didn’t answer. I tried to keep my face neutral, but I knew my bitterness was clear to see. Jesse wanted to know everything about her, but my Mate had decided he hated me years before he even knew my name. She hesitated. “I haven’t brought him there in a while. I won’t bring him back if you don’t want me to.” “I don’t mind if you bring him to the creek, Kate. I don’t own it. It’s just a creek.” My tone was colder than I meant for it to be. “I know that you’ve been spending a lot of time there, like we used to.” “No,” I replied with a laugh, “it’s nothing like what it was when we were younger. I go there now to brood and feel sorry for myself. You could bring Jesse there every damn day, and I wouldn’t mind. Maybe if the creek was occupied, I’d be forced to do something productive. Forced to stop moping. It’s fine.” Kate shifted uncomfortably and cleared her throat. I said nothing. She was silent, appearing to be deep in thought. Her lips were pressed together in a hard line. After a moment, she said, “You are doing productive stuff. You’re going to the meeting with Black Summit. My dad told me that your dad wants to start your Alpha training.” My temper flared, an electrifying burst of anger rushing through me. “What kind of Alpha doesn’t have a fucking Mate?” I snapped. She gasped and jolted back in her chair at my outburst, and I sighed. My rage quickly fizzled out at the sight of Kate, as she sheepishly averted her gaze. “I imagine it always will be.” “I hope not. I need to get over that bastard but I just don’t know how.” “He was your Mate, Natalie. Go easy on yourself.” I shook my head. “I feel weak. I’m disgusted with myself. I haven’t cried as much as I have over the past couple months in my entire life. This isn’t like me, and I hate it.” My eyes were suddenly brimming with tears, and I scowled. I looked down and away from Kate, blinking furiously. “Why don’t we go out?” Kate suggested. “What do you mean?” “Let’s go out shopping or something. Or clubbing, if you’re in the mood for it. I am, if you are. Not here in town. Let’s go to the human city, away from Callum.” My heart clenched at the mention of his name. “I don’t know. I don’t really feel like it.” “I think it would be good for you. When’s the last time you went anywhere? Not here, not on business. Out.” “Been a while.” I looked up to find Kate staring at me expectantly. I sighed, but making the trip out to Augusta was one of the last things I wanted to do. “Maybe some other day. Not now.” Kate shook her head and pressed, “We could even get a hotel room. You could pretend to be someone else, just for tonight. No Mates, no Alpha training, no pack meetings…just, human problems. Like, electric bills and dead-end jobs and dinner plans.” “I’ll pass.” She leaned back in her desk chair, crossed her arms over her chest, and exhaled heavily. “If you say so. What should we do instead? You clearly need something to keep you busy.” “Let’s go see a movie.” She perked back up. “Here in town, or in Augusta?” “Here.” She protested, but ultimately, she agreed, and we left her house and made our way to the tiny, local movie theater in the town center. ••• Kate and I saw our movie—a horror film I’d been looking forward to seeing, but I’d been too preoccupied to have even realized it had been released. We bought popcorn and candy and sodas, and settled into two big, cushy chairs in the very back row of the theater. The movie was, in fact, a welcome distraction. When it was over, she invited me back to her house for dinner, but I declined. I found myself back at the creek. Night had fallen, but with my enhanced sense of sight, the darkness didn’t matter. My Wolf was restless in the back of my mind as I emerged from the fringe of the forest, and looked out across the bank of the creek. Moonlight barely peeked through the tree branches overhead. There was a light, pleasant breeze that rustled the leaves and felt good against my skin. I kicked off my shoes and went to sit on the very edge of the water, with my feet dangling in the fast-moving current. The water looked black in the dark. I laid down flat on my back on the rocks, with my feet still in the water, and folded my hands on my belly. I closed my eyes and listened to the sounds of the wilderness, of the creek splashing about, of the crickets, of the rustling leaves. I breathed in the smell of wet earth and cedar. I couldn’t stop thinking about what Kate had said. Her words didn’t strike me at all in the moment, but now…her suggestion that I pretend to be someone else wouldn’t leave me alone. I knew that I was taking it out of context, but the gears in my head were turning and I wondered what it would be like to live among the humans, for at least a little while. Longer than a night, but not permanently. I liked the idea of having so few, trivial problems that things like electric bills and dead-end jobs and dinner plans were important enough to be at the forefront of my mind. I imagined myself house-hunting, like they did on HGTV, or making a grocery list and having to restock my own kitchen, or getting fired from a job I hated anyway and stressing about paying my rent. I could quite literally pretend to be someone else. Someone human. I could casually date and it wouldn’t matter, because whoever I was dating wouldn’t leave me at the drop of a hat if their Mate just so happened to walk through the door of whatever restaurant we were having dinner at. About five miles east of our territory, in the opposite direction of Black Summit’s stolen land, there was a garage. It was large enough to house most of our pack’s vehicles. This garage was built on an otherwise empty lot. There was a narrow, winding dirt path that was carved out of the side of the mountain, which led out onto a long stretch of open road, which, if followed for long enough, led to the city of Augusta. I could just leave. It wouldn’t be hard. I didn’t have a car of my own, but I could take one of my dad’s. I could tell him I was going to go shopping, like Kate wanted to, and then I just wouldn’t come home. He probably has some kind of tracker on all of his cars, my Wolf chimed in. Her voice was soft, almost meek. How could we do this, then? I asked. I held my breath, expecting her to shut my silly daydreaming down just as fast as it had escalated to me actually entertaining the idea of leaving. She stayed silent, but I sensed she was still engaged. She said, We could leave the group on the way to the meeting with the Black Summit pack. Run off in the opposite direction. Dad won’t do shit if we get caught, I interjected. I sat up from my reclined position as excitement swelled in my chest. We won’t get caught, though, and as long as we stay on the humans’ roads once we’re far enough away from pack territory, Black Summit can’t get us for territory infringement. Territory infringement is a nonissue anyway. Augusta is nowhere near the Black Summit pack, my Wolf corrected me. It’s not like we’ll be cutting ties to become a rogue, I continued, hardly registering what she said. We can come back home when we’re ready. I stood, abandoning my shoes where I left them near the fringe of the forest, and darted into the trees, back towards home. My mind was racing, and I broke into a run, ignoring the stinging pain as branches whipped at my arms and legs. And then, I was crying, with hot tears streaming down my cheeks. I didn’t slow down. I pushed myself harder, and adrenaline carried me through the woods faster, and I screamed. Violent, all-consuming sobs wracked my body as I ran, and marveled at the prospect of starting over. For the first time since the fateful, horrible day that I met Callum, I felt hope, and it was beautiful and overwhelming and scary and invigorating all at once. I entered my house through the back door, and I had never been so grateful to find it empty, as I sniffled and hiccupped and wailed pathetically. I dragged myself up the stairs in a strange, half-dejected, half-elated haze, buried my face in my pillow, and cried some more. When I finally sat up, having cried all the tears I had to cry, I pushed off my mattress and got to my feet with renewed vigor. Never mind how exhausted I was from the roller coaster of emotions I’d been riding for the past hour. I took to formulating an escape route. I glanced at the alarm clock next to my bed—it was just after midnight. It was Monday. The meeting with the Black Summit pack was on Wednesday. I wasn’t sure which direction we’d set off in when we left for the clearing in which the meeting would take place, but it didn’t matter. Once we were far enough away from our little town and deep enough into the wilderness, I’d veer away from the group and do everything I could to cover my scent—roll in mud and leaves, splash around in any water I came across, run like a madwoman to throw them off my trail. I knew, without a doubt, that Dad would send someone after me once they realized I was gone. With any luck, it would take them a minute to notice, and I’ll have had ample time to put some distance between us. I was fast; I had Alpha blood coursing through my veins. I was confident I could do it. I spent the rest of the night researching the housing market in Augusta. I didn’t know how renting and buying worked when I sat down in front of my computer, but by the time the sun began to creep above the horizon and fiery orange light flooded my bedroom, I felt I had a solid handle on it. I scheduled two house showings for next Thursday afternoon, and I decided I’d just rent a hotel room till I found a place of my own. I fell asleep sitting up in my desk chair, studying the photos of one of the houses I would be viewing in just a little over a week. In Augusta. With the humans. ••• I kept myself busy on Monday. I arranged two more house showings, and I forged a resume so I could find work. I considered telling Kate about my plan to leave, but I decided against it. I trusted her fully. I knew she wouldn’t tell my parents, but I didn’t want her to try to talk me out of it. I didn’t want her to get upset. I resolved to call her once I made it to Augusta. On Tuesday, I wandered aimlessly around my little town and committed every single detail to memory. I had no intent to leave for good, but still. I wanted to visit Kate, but I couldn’t bring myself to. I avoided my parents and my brother, too. On Tuesday night, I packed a backpack with my wallet, a few changes of clothes, and two pairs of shoes wrapped in plastic grocery bags. Nobody would bat an eye at my backpack. It was most common for us to just tie our clothes around our ankles when we Shifted, but we would also frequently pack extra clothes in backpacks, and simply loosen the straps as loose as they would go before putting the bag on in our human form. We probably looked pretty silly when we did this—giant wolves wearing tiny-looking backpacks. I tried to occupy my racing mind and my jittery Wolf with some TV, but it was no use. I gave up quickly, and found myself in the family room of my home—the same home I’d lived in for my entire life. I was becoming increasingly emotional. I shed a few tears as I pulled family photos out of their frames and scurried back upstairs to my bedroom, clutching the photos to my chest. I slipped the photos into the front pocket of my backpack and sat down heavily on my bed. I leaned over and held my face in my hands, and focused on steadying my breathing. Are you sure you really want to do this? my Wolf asked. I exhaled shakily. Yes, I responded, my tone laced with traitorous uncertainty. It’s not a matter of whether I want to do this. I need to do this. I would be back within a year, at most. I just needed to clear my head. I needed some distance to recover from my rejection. I needed to find a new normal—a change of scenery. I didn’t want to pretend to be okay. I didn’t want to burden my family. I was volatile and I was hurting. I really did need to do this. I wanted to pretend to be someone else.
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