My school bag slips off my shoulder as I walk to school on Monday morning. I haul it back up and rub my puffy eyes. My surroundings blur then slowly straighten back up, nearly making me dizzy. A car passes by then, so very loud as its tires push against the warn-down road. I can't think right now—when I try, my head starts to pound.
I wander into the main school building and flinch at the sound of slamming lockers and blaring voices. The day passes slowly. At lunch, I spot Vivian and her friends. She looks as if she wants to call my name and talk things over, but before she can, I turn and walk in the other direction.
I meant it when I said I was over them. Even back home—where friendships seemed so shallow and meaningless—the few friends I had treated me better. At least they tried to include me.
My mom doesn't know what to do about my sleeping habits. But it's not just that now—my apatite has vanished as well. Grandma can't get away with giving me extra waffles anymore, not when I can barely finish the first one. My grades are dropping as I constantly forget about homework, and most days, if I'm not at school, I'll be struggling at the diner. And Laura can only be so forgiving.
I trudge home with aching legs. The only good thing about today is that the weather has been kind. My first two weeks of being in Waindale consisted of rain and clouds and more rain, but today the clouds are white and the sun shines through them. I glance up at the sky for the few seconds I can. When my eyes come back down, the forest beside me looks dark, and the creature in it stares.
I freeze in place. My throat clogs up. The giant brown wolf watches me. Utterly shocked, I look over its thick warm-toned fur and vicious paws. It moves slightly, and suddenly I know it is not a statue. Clenching my jaw, I steadily turn away and carefully take a step, then another, and another. I can feel its eyes on me, taking in my limbs that it can so easily tear apart. My chest vibrates as I slowly make my way down the sidewalk, ready for it to pounce at any moment.
Curse words repeat in my head. I hesitantly look around for other people or a passing car, but I'm alone. My eyes begin to water as the intense fear settles in the pit of my stomach.
Eventually, I'm walking onto Grandmas property and up the porch steps. I open the door and rely completely on muscle memory to set down my bag, take off my shoes, and enter the kitchen. Grandma is there, bent over large bowels, making something. She says, "Wrenley, how was school? Feeling any better?"
When I don't answer promptly, she turns. "Wrenley? Dear? Is everything alright?"
My eyes rise from the tiles and land on her worried face. "I-I think I'm going to take a nap."
My mom drives me to school the next day. When she asks why, I tell her it's because I don't feel well enough to walk, which isn't really a lie. In the car, she brings up the option of seeing a doctor. If my lack of sleep and other issues are causing this much trouble, she doesn't feel right just waiting to see if it gets better. My mother is worried that there may be an underlying cause.
When I walk into school, before I can even take three steps, Vivian appears in front of me. I halt and suck in a breath. When my lips part, ready to mutter whatever words come to mind so I can ditch, she says, "I know what you saw, Wrenley."
Vivian takes my hand and leads me to a quiet corner down a quiet hallway. "I'm going to get into so much trouble for this. I may as well be digging my own grave."
"What's going on?"
She stops and turns to me. "You saw a wolf in the forest yesterday. It was watching you, right?"
I nod, wrapping my arms around my body.
"Did you tell anyone?"
"I-I thought I was just seeing things. I haven't been sleeping much lately. I thought I was hallucinating or something. But you're saying that it was really there? And how do you—"
Vivian's face scrunches before she says, "That was me."
I stare at her. "Uh, what? Sorry, I don't get it."
"That was me. I was the wolf."
"Um. How were you the wolf?" I ask, not believing a word she's saying. I didn't take Vivian for the day-dreaming, fantasy, I'm-special type.
"I hope you understand the consequences for what I'm doing," she dramatizes. "Me and Imogen and Eli—we're not human. Not really. Well, sometimes. Most of the time, actually. We have this ability to shift into something else. Are you following?"
I grip my sweater and say nothing at all.
"Well, we shift into wolves. Big wolves," she says, making me reconsider my decision to follow her. "What you saw yesterday was me in my shifted form."
I open my mouth and take in a breath and say, "So you guys pretend to be werewolves is what you're saying?"
Vivian shakes her head and takes my hands in hers. "No, Wrenley. We don't pretend. We are werewolves. Real life werewolves."
"What I saw yesterday was a wolf. What I'm seeing now is you—a human. I mean, you guys can do whatever you want, but you don't have to talk to me like I still believe in Santa Claus."
"I thought this would be easy, for some reason," she mumbles. "You want me to prove it? Is that what this is all leading to? You want me to shift?"
"Um, it's fine, Vivian. I have to go to class anyway."
She rolls her eyes and grabs me again, pulling me further into the school. "Let's just make this quick," she mutters as a door appears at the end of a hall. Feeling uncomfortable but curious at the same time, I go along with it and wonder what in the hell Vivian is going to do. Would it be rude if I laugh? What if I can't control it? At least I'm not thinking about how tired I am.
She pushes the door open and takes me outside. We walk toward the trees in silence. Once we're buried deep enough, Vivian spins around and motions for me to back up. "I have to take off my clothes," she says.
"Is that really necessary? You don't have to do this," I tell her, again hoping I don't let a laugh slip.
When she says nothing, I sigh and turn around. I hear her moving and dropping what is supposedly her clothes to the ground. "Okay," she says. "I'm going to shift now. Just—just don't scream."
My brows raise. Suddenly an orchestra of bizarre sounds compels me to turn around, and when I do, my neck cranks up. Looking down at me is the face of a wolf. Not even a second later a scream bursts from my throat and I tumble backward, falling to my butt. I scream again and scramble against the dirt and pine needles. The wolf steps forward, making me flinch.
"Vivian!" I shout. "Vivian! Help!"
The wolf comes closer and my eyes squeeze shut. When teeth aren't puncturing my flesh or ripping my head off, I open them. Vivian is standing before me with her hands hardly keeping her decent.
A weird noise leaves me as I scoot back again and clamber to my feet. "What the hell."
"I told you I was a werewolf! And I told you not to scream!"
"Oh my god, oh my god," I frantically walk around and pick up my school bag from the ground. "That didn't just happen." Vivian swiftly dresses herself while trying to calm me down. "This isn't real. This is a dream. I'm dreaming and you didn't really just become a wolf. None of this is actually happening."
"It's actually happening, Wrenley."
"No, no, no—that's impossible!"
"I just showed you that it is."
I look straight at her. "How did you do it? What's the big trick?"
"Trick?" She gapes. "There's no trick. I'm a werewolf. Do you want me to do it again?"
I shake my head and squeeze my bag against my chest. "Why is this happening? Why did you do that?"
"Because you were going to find out sooner or later."
"Why?" I ask, wanting to know everything and absolutely nothing. Part of me is attempting to digest this, but the other part is begging to escape home to California.
Vivian struggles to answer. "Y-You just can't tell anyone that you know, okay? Not Imogen or Eli, and definitely not your mom or anyone else."
"If all of this is real, if you're actually a werewolf. Then why are you trusting me with this? Why me?"
"You know about him, don't you?"
I swallow. "What?"
"You went to the academy. You're trying to piece it all together. What is it that gave hints away? Did you see him? Did you hear something?"
"See who, Vivian? Who's he?"
"Just tell me what triggered your snooping."
Crossing my arms, I hold my breath. "I guess I went to the academy because of the shirt that was in my room. I started working at the diner because I know you guys are keeping secrets—secrets about your friends or the academy. I thought it was drugs, but it's this, right? The secret is that you all do this. Shift into wolves."
Vivian moves closer. "There was a shirt in your room?"
"Under the bed. A men's large. From the academy."
Her eyes glimmer a little as the corner of her lips twitch upward. "And did it—did it smell? Smell nice? Good? At all?"
I press my lips together.
"It did, didn't it?" She asks. "I knew it."
"Do you know about the dark thing then? The only thing that makes any sense is that the thing is like one of you. Is it Imogen? Or Eli?"
Vivian blinks. "What dark thing? What are you talking about?"
"There's a thing watching me. Stalking me. It's a giant beast thing, but now that I've seen you—maybe it's a wolf. It's not brown, though. It's black, really dark. It has yellow eyes. It's in my dreams too. I thought it was my mind playing games with me, but it's one of you, right? Imogen has black hair—is it her?"
Vivian's eyes widen before she suddenly covers her mouth with her hand. "I knew it," she says, muffled. She even jumps up and down, laughing.
"Is it her then? Have you guys been stalking me? Why?"
Vivian shakes her head. "It's not Imogen. It's him!"
"Will you just tell me, Vivian," I press. "What's going on? Why is he watching me? Do you know him? Does he want to hurt me?"
She stops and thinks for a moment.
Her green eyes look straight into mine. "Oh, I am so going to be screwing myself over here."