Morning came before I was ready. I sat on the edge of my mattress, borderline hyperventilating with anticipation and nervousness. Eventually, I heard my parents moving about downstairs in the kitchen. I smiled sadly as I listened to the sounds of them making breakfast, laughing together and clashing around pots and pans. The smell of bacon drifted into my room.
After some time, I stood up. My legs felt unstable. I triple-checked the contents of my backpack before shrugging it onto my shoulders. I took one last look around my bedroom as I stood at the door, one trembling hand resting on the doorknob.
We’ll be back, my Wolf said. Someday.
I smiled weakly at her feeble attempt to comfort me, but I didn’t respond. I could feel her anxiety, too, the intensity mirroring my own. Was I just being impulsive? Was it really worth it to leave my home, my family, the only life I’d ever known?
I went downstairs and entered the kitchen. My parents stood together at the sink, wrapped up in each other’s arms. They gave each other a quick kiss before my mother pulled herself away to greet me. As she approached, smiling with her arms outstretched towards me, I knew I couldn’t stay. It was worth leaving. Tears stung my eyes after watching my own parents’ brief, harmless display of affection.
It hurt. I would never have the bond that they had. I blinked back the tears as my mother enveloped me in an eager embrace. She was going on about the Black Summit pack—something about making sure I maintain my composure, but I barely heard her. My dad asked if I was okay and I assured him I was.
“Just anxious,” I said. It wasn’t a lie.
We sat down for breakfast. Mom mentioned that Graham was still in bed, and he refused to come down and eat with us. Shame, considering. I tried not to let my uncharacteristic disappointment at my brother’s absence show. Mom piled a plate high with pancakes, scrambled eggs, and bacon, and served me some fruit in a bowl on the side. I chewed each bite slowly, savoring the burst of flavors. I wasn’t sure when I’d get to enjoy her cooking again. I tried not to think about it.
It was about 9:20am. The minutes were ticking by excruciatingly slowly, but also alarmingly fast. Graham finally came downstairs and picked at whatever was left of breakfast at the kitchen counter. I hugged him for a second too long before Dad and I left for the packhouse, and he gave me a funny look.
Again, I said, “Just anxious.”
Mom hugged me tightly, and my nervousness spiked. She had a way about her—a Goddess-given gift, an Affinity. She had premonitions, and growing up, my brother and I rarely got away with anything without her knowledge. But this time, she gave me no indication that she had an inkling of suspicion. Still, I had to force myself to let go of her, and to turn around and leave with Dad. I would miss my mom. So much.
We lived in a cozy house tucked away behind the packhouse. Considering that my dad was the Alpha, our house was rather modest. There was a long, twisting driveway, concealed by tall trees. Our driveway forked at the beginning, with one path narrowing and leading directly up to the back door of the packhouse, and the other path curving around the building.
We made the short trip up the drive, and Dad held the packhouse door open for me. He went to his office to get some work done while we waited for the rest of our group to arrive. I sat alone in the foyer, a ball of nerves. My Wolf didn’t speak. I nodded politely at pack members that passed by. I glanced at my cell phone—it was 9:36, and I had a text message from Kate, wishing me luck today. I chuckled, and felt a pang of guilt. If only she knew.
Andrew and Finnian arrived together at 9:48. My heart was thumping so wildly against my ribcage that I wondered if the men standing next to me could hear it. Dad joined us in the foyer not a moment later, and soon, our warriors began filtering in through the doors, too. I slipped my cell phone into my backpack as Dad’s eyes darted around. All 11 of us were accounted for. It was time.
“Is everybody ready?” Dad asked.
An eerie sense of foreboding hung heavily over our heads, but we all nodded solemnly, and there were hushed murmurs of agreement. We filed out the doors of the packhouse. I was trembling again in anticipation.
“You alright, Nat?” Finnian asked me, his voice low.
“I’m okay,” I answered, mirroring his reserved demeanor, “Just a little nervous.” Still wasn’t a lie.
He nodded once and refocused his gaze on the road ahead. I glanced around. I had never seen our warriors behave this way before a pack meeting, not to mention my father, Andrew, and Finnian. If I had any intention of actually attending, I probably would be quite scared.
We smiled at passerby as they regarded us with admiration and stepped out of our way. We walked for a while, before we came upon the woods at the far north side of town. We entered the thick brush and the bright sunlight overhead was swallowed by the trees. My father cleared his throat from the head of the group, and then without turning to look at us, he said, “We will stop to hunt and to rest. We’re meeting at a clearing just outside of the south border of Black Summit’s territory. I’m sure they’ll be waiting for us.” There were grim undertones to his voice that I’d never heard before. My skin prickled and I felt uneasy.
This was vastly different from any pack meeting I had ever attended, and I was tempted to change my timeline. I almost wanted to go to the meeting just to see what all the fuss was about firsthand.
“Get ready to Shift,” Dad instructed.
I obeyed, as did the men. We continued deeper into the forest, stripping off our clothes as we went, our pace quickening. Suddenly, my adrenaline was pumping. We broke into a run, stopping just long enough to tie our clothes to our ankles. All around me, I heard familiar snaps and cracks. I loosened both straps of my backpack with one smooth, fluid yank, and then I willed my Wolf to the front of my consciousness.
At first, Shifting hurt, but now it was as painless and effortless as breathing. Assuming my Wolf form was second-nature. Bones cracked and dislocated, muscles snapped and pulled, organs changed size and position. I welcomed the familiar sensation of fur sprouting all over my body, and of my fingernails elongating into sharp claws.
I landed on all fours with grace and a soft thud, and now I was sprinting. My Wolf was not as large as some of the others in my pack—I was small in stature in human form—but I was of Alpha descent. I was powerful. Dad and I both knew to reel it back, and to keep pace with our group, rather than using our Alpha speed and leaving them in the dust.
But that was exactly what I intended to do very soon.
We ran for a while. Nobody was communicating over the mind-link. In the silence, it occurred to me that my Wolf and I hadn’t discussed when we would attempt to depart, or what we would do if we succeeded. Suddenly, though, she darted to the right, kicking it into high gear and tapping into our Alpha strength to carry us away from the group as fast as possible.
She dove into the brush and thrashed around, covering her fur in leaves and twigs, before leaping back to her feet and pressing on. We ran for miles before we came across a small stream. She sprinted up the bank for some time, and then she jumped into the water without a hint of hesitation. She scrambled onto the bank on the other side of the stream, and then she continued to run.
Eventually, it became clear that we were not being followed, and her pace slowed to a steady trot.
On to Augusta? I asked.
That’s the plan, she confirmed.
I wasn’t sure how long we darted around in the woods for, but I could smell humans nearby. I Shifted back into my human form, and I found that the clothes that were tied around my ankle were filthy. I stuffed them into my backpack, and slipped into a clean T-shirt and a pair of denim shorts. I rummaged around for my cell phone, adjusted the straps on my backpack, and Googled hotels in Augusta. I GPS’d the one with the highest star rating.
I was already just outside of Canton, and only about an hour away from Augusta by car. It was almost 2pm, and the walking directions added just over 11 hours to my travel time. I sighed, and contemplated going home.
We’ve already made it this far. Let’s keep going. We’ll get there, my Wolf urged.
I tried my hardest to push the doubt from my mind. I stayed hidden in the forest for a while, taking small, timid steps in the direction of Canton. I could see the human roads through the trees, and every few minutes or so, a car would whiz past. I clutched my phone in my hands.
We will be okay, my Wolf said assuredly.
She was right. And she was right a moment ago, too—we’d already made it this far. With a determined huff, I emerged from the trees, blinking shielding my eyes as they adjusted to the bright afternoon sun. I glanced at my phone screen again, and continued west, walking in the trash-strewn grass between the edge of the woods and the edge of the asphalt. It was like I was straddling the line between home and the only life I’d ever known, and whatever could be waiting for me in Augusta…a change of pace, a change of scenery, a real chance to heal from my rejection. A simple, human life.
I thought of the house showings that I had scheduled. My favorite one was a little brick one, with just one bedroom and bathroom. If I remembered correctly, the total square footage was only about 1,100. I had never been in such a small house before. The thought of living in such a small, intimate space excited me.
I wondered if I could get so comfortable here that I would stay forever. Maybe I’d wind up dying among the humans. Sometimes they died alone, unmarried with no children. I could do that if I stayed in their midst, and it wouldn’t be out-of-the-ordinary at all. Back home, a wolf dying alone was a tragedy. It screamed, “I was Mateless!” I had attended death ceremonies of Unmated wolves. I had shaken my head and muttered, “What a shame.” I wondered what had happened to their Mate more than what had happened to them. Was their Mate also dead? If not, who rejected who? And why?
As if it was any of my business, no matter who my father was.
My Wolf grumbled in disapproval at my thoughts. I knew she didn’t like the idea of dying alone, among the humans or otherwise. How could she be comfortable with such an idea in the slightest? I wasn’t either, but if that was my fate now, so be it. I didn’t see myself taking a chosen Mate after feeling the irresistible pull of the Mate-bond. Even if I did return to my pack someday, I was doomed to a life of high school-esque boyfriends and one-dimensional relationships and casual sex.
I mulled over the idea of sex with a human. Werewolves were highly sexual creatures, and I was sure that I wouldn’t last a month out here without needing to find a male to satisfy my needs. Or, try to satisfy my needs. I imagined that sex with a human was incredibly underwhelming. I wasn’t sure if it was just my current emotional state, but right at that moment, sex with anything but another werewolf was revolting.
I wrinkled my nose and resolved to cross that bridge.
I walked for forty minutes. Nobody stopped for me, but why would they? I wasn’t trying to attract attention. I wasn’t hitchhiking. To my surprise, though, as I was nearing the town of Canton, a car horn beeped behind me. I stopped in my tracks and twisted around to look. A little red Honda with a Tennessee license plate on the front slowed and pulled onto the shoulder of the road next to me. The darkly tinted passenger side window rolled down and revealed a woman sitting behind the wheel. Her brow was furrowed and she was staring at me with concern written plainly on her face.
“Honey, what are you doing out here all alone?” she asked me. She had a thick Southern twang.
“Just walking,” I responded guardedly. I could smell that she was a human, so she posed no threat to me. Regardless, I knew better.
“Where are you headed?”
“How old are you?”
“19.” I had no reason to lie.
She chewed her bottom lip briefly, and then she offered, “Can I drive you to Augusta? On foot, you won’t get there for…God, I don’t know, 10 hours? Probably more. You’ll be walking long after nightfall.”
I eyed her cautiously.
“Honey, please. I can’t knowingly leave you out here on your own.”
“I’m fine,” I said, my tone clipped. I could fend for myself—this woman didn’t know what I was capable of.
She just stared at me pleadingly. I pressed my lips together in a thin line, and glanced between her and the open road towards Canton. I didn’t want to accept, but I knew she was right. I’d be walking well into the night, and I would appreciate a lift.
“Please, let me give you a ride,” the woman urged. “I really don’t mind.”
I exhaled heavily, defeated, and strode to her car. I pulled open the passenger side door and climbed into the seat, still wary of her true intentions. It was in my nature. I buckled my seatbelt, and softened a little at the way her tense muscles relaxed and she smiled at me. “Thank you,” she said, sounding genuinely relieved.
“I should be thanking you,” I told her, as she eased up on the brake and we pulled back onto the road.
She smiled again. “It’s no problem at all, honey.”
I studied her as we rode in silence for a moment. She had stick-straight, dirty blonde hair, green eyes, and a slightly hooked nose. Her thin lips were painted with deep red lipstick, and she wore an expensive-looking blush pantsuit. She smelled faintly of honeysuckle, underneath that telltale human musk.
She noticed me staring at her, and smiled at me yet again. “So, why Augusta?” she asked curiously.
“Visiting family,” I fibbed.
“What’s your name?”
“Natalie.” I paused. “What’s yours?”
“Why did you stop for me?”
“There are no houses in either direction for miles and miles. I saw a girl walking alone down a very long road, and I wanted to make sure you were okay is all.”
I didn’t respond, but Bobbie seemed genuine enough. I watched trees zip past the car outside my window. We passed a big green sign that indicated that the exit into Canton was coming up on our right. My eyes flicked to the distant mountain peaks briefly before I turned my attention back to Bobbie.
“Where were you going?” I asked her.
“I had a job interview in East Peru. I actually live in Canton. I was on my way home.”
“Did you get the job?”
She gave me a sideways smirk. “I’ll know for sure in a few days, but I’m pretty confident I got it.”
“That’s great,” I said, smiling at her for the first time.
Seeing this human wearing her pantsuit and heading home from a job interview sparked something in me that I’d never felt before. This was new and different and exhilarating. This was exactly what I wanted when I decided to do something crazy—this seemed so mundane and so exceptionally ordinary that it was like a game.
The person I was before I found my Mate was gone. I would never be her again. That life, that sense of contentedness and normalcy, was gone, too, and now, sitting in human-Bobbie’s car, I could see a new beginning just on the horizon.
I booked a hotel room on my phone. Bobbie told me about her bitter, messy divorce. That was why she was in Canton—the divorce knocked her on her ass and she was living with her sister.
“32-years-old and leechin’ off my little sister,” she grumbled lowly, with a sour look on her face. “I’m just so glad I never had any kids with that asshole.”
“I bet,” I said, pretending to understand her implication. In truth, I had no idea what she was talking about.
“I’m sorry, honey, I don’t mean to unload all my bullshit on you. I guess my point is…don’t settle. I thought I was destined to be with Josh forever, and I went and trapped myself in a shitty marriage when I was way too young to be making those types of decisions in the first place.”
If only she knew.
“What about you, huh? Got a boyfriend back home?”
Her question stung. It was innocent, and she could never understand the concept of a fated Mate, but my heart clenched at her words and I averted my gaze. “Nope,” I answered. I liked Bobbie. I decided to give her a variation of my train wreck of a love-life. “Had a thing with a guy recently,” I continued, “but it wasn’t good for me. He was a dick.”
“Good for you for knowing better than to put up with a man’s shit.”
I wasn’t sure if her praise held any weight, but I felt pride swell in my chest either way.
About half an hour later, we pulled off the highway and onto a side street, where we then turned left into the hotel parking lot. I thanked Bobbie profusely, and I meant it. I was glad I took her up on her offer to give me a ride. She gave me her cell phone number, and told me to text or call her anytime. With that, she left.
I never even made it to the doors of the hotel. I could smell Mexican food, and I found the source to be a yellow building on the other side of the road, directly across from the hotel, with blue trim and a stone pillars by the front door. There was a sign on the outside that said “Margaritas”. My belly rumbled in hunger, almost on cue.
I crossed the street and made my way into the restaurant. It was intimately-lit, with yellow textured walls and exposed ceiling beams. The tables were wooden and rustic, with colorful Mexican table runners. I was seated at a table far away from any other diners, and I sat in a chair with fruit carved into the back.
I ordered some steak fajitas, and they were subpar, but I scarfed them down ravenously, and then ordered more. I hadn’t realized how hungry I actually was.
When I was finished, I paid for my food, returned to the hotel, and checked in. The lady at the front desk gave me my key card, and I took the elevator up to the fifth floor. I let myself into my room, set my backpack down on the floor just inside the door, put my hands on my hips, and looked around. There walls were beige, and there was dingy rust-colored carpet covering the floor. There was a large window on the wall directly across from where I stood, and the curtains were open. I walked between the large wooden desk and the king-sized bed, coming to stand in front of the window, with my hands resting on the sill. I barely gave the hotel pool or the parking lot or the restaurants and various stores across the street a passing glance. In spite of myself, my eyes were drawn to the distant mountain peaks.