I hate her.
Meg, of course.
She took that picture. I’ve cropped it to look less like I’m trying to be sexy. But it’s here for context.
I mean, I’m trying to be nice to her, for Tai’s sake. But today. If I thought she was going to try and make friends with me, I sure was wrong.
God Damnit. Even Tai knows I’ll get pissed if he takes my picture without me knowing. That one time it was okay. But this. I guess maybe she felt left out? Tai was holding the heavy bag so I could do some warm up kicks. I didn’t even know she was there. Tai doesn’t worry too much about his camera at Lucky’s; you need a key to get in and nobody in there is interested it stealing from anyone else. Sometimes, when Lucky is showing me stuff, Tai will grab his camera and take some pictures. Once or twice, he’s even gotten me. And I forgive him because he’s Tai and he doesn’t share them with anyone but me or, sometimes, Kelly and his dad. But Meg had no right. Especially right then. I mean, okay, I might have forgiven her if she hadn’t decided to put it on Facebook, even if she was dating someone I suspected I might be in love with, but she did. And all her little friends from that snotty private school of hers just had so much fun commenting on me. I wouldn’t even known about it if Jo-Anne hadn’t called to ask when I started posing for sexy pictures. Fifth of never, that’s when.
So Tai was holding the bag and we were going back and forth all smart-Aleck because that is what we do. I wasn’t really into it, though. So, okay, I was thinking about him and about how little he’s been around this week and that was part of it, but something else is going on. Something weird and a little worrying. When he walked away, I just had one of those moments where everything, my dreams of Shen, the stress of waiting for someone from Eris to show up, the Eluna in my closet, the thing I saw on Monday, and my crush all just came sweeping in, the way things do, sometimes, when you’re trying not to think about them. I sort of leaned against the bag and rested my forehead there, just trying to find the quiet center I usually have when I’m at the gym. I know exactly when she took it because I was totally caught up in one of those moments when I was really missing Mom and Dad and Tommy. Not just missing them, but missing our old life, the one where I didn’t have to worry about the magical orb in my closet or staying late at the Bijou to watch a movie by myself because Meg was coming over for dinner or dragons the size of a 747 slipping in and out of the sky above the Sears Tower like a rabbit disappearing through holes only it knows about. It was a very private moment for me; I didn’t think anyone was looking. Why would they? Even the guys that are total creeps at Lucky’s know that Lucky has a very fatherly attitude toward me and to look anywhere else but me. I just needed a minute to get a grip. And a normal person would have recognized that. A normal person would have left me alone. But not Meg. The bitch.
Maybe I wouldn’t even be that mad if she hadn’t tagged Tai in the picture and captioned it ‘Tai’s super sexy best friend’. Which, of course, brought the deluge of catty comments from her girl friends and a ton of nasty, slimy ones from the guys. By the time Jo-Anne called me, they’d done everything from suggest that me living with Tai’s family was a pretty ‘lucky’ situation for him to telling Meg she better watch her back. She didn’t do much defending. She even seemed to be enjoying all the pity that Tai lived with someone that wasn’t a total gargoyle. Which, okay, I’m decent looking these days. But, damnit, that isn’t my fault and I have nowhere else to live. Tai has never been anything but a gentleman about me being around and they had no right to suggest that I was somehow his live-in sex toy. Worse, when I confronted Tai, he wasn’t even phased. He didn’t even seem irritated, even though she had crossed a whole pack of lines in my book.
“She took it down,” he said, glancing up from his book on photography. “She apologized. Why are you still upset?”
“Because a bunch of people I didn’t even know were judging me!” I shouted. “They think I’m like, your personal geisha or something.”
“They know that isn’t true,” He said shaking his head. His attention was only half on me. That was the hell of it. I deserved at least a little protection. It wasn’t like I asked him to go picking up a girlfriend and dragging her into our lives.
“She had no right to post it!” I shouted. “And that caption….” I fisted my hands, trying hard to rein in my raging temper. “I didn’t pose for her. I didn’t even know she’d taken it.”
“Well it was beautiful,” he said with a laugh, which might have meant more if he’d looked at me when he said it. “That picture really got your good side and she wanted to show it off. Meg’s got talent.”
“Because nobody can take a decent picture of me without the talent to make me look like I’m posing for playboy?” I snapped. That was the part that really pissed me off; I didn’t even look like me. I looked like I was posing. Like I was asking for the attention. “Keep you keep her away from me, Tai. I don’t want her anywhere near me, ever again. You may think she’s little miss perfect, but I hate her.” And the way he turned to look at me then should have made me feel ashamed; he looked like I’d slapped him. But I was too hurt at the moment to care. I backed away from him, biting my lip hard to keep from crying. “I’m going for a run,” I shouted at the kitchen, where I could hear Kelly making dinner. Her head immediately came around the corner. I could see she’d been listening. Like I hadn’t already talked to her. She isn’t Mom, but she tries really hard for me. I don’t know why. Maybe because we can be friends – unless my grades are slipping or I do something stupid – and she is like my mom in that respect. More of a loner. Or maybe it is just that I managed to give her back the family she was so quickly losing. Maybe I didn’t do it on purpose. But I’m good at doing things on accident, good and bad. And she had her family, so it was all peaches in her book.
“It’s getting late. I don’t like you going out alone,” she said, her eyes flickering to Tai. It was too close to sundown for him to go with me and I could see her remembering the man in the alley, the one the cops never found. I still don’t know who he was or why he grabbed me. He took one look at Tai as a seven foot tall werewolf and ran – like any normal person – and I tell myself he didn’t recognize what Tai was like he’d seen it before, but… I don’t know. I get paranoid because it’s been over three months and I feel like somebody should have come after me already. I tell myself he was just one of those random guys, looking to steal whatever I had or maybe hurt me the way men sometimes hurt girls walking on their own, that his evil was the normal kind. But I don’t always believe that.
“We already ran this morning,” Tai said. His voice was tight. Cold. Now he was angry. At me and on Meg’s behalf. Of course.
I shook my head, still backing away. “I need some air.” I turned and was out the door before he could say anything else.
Ever notice how, when life is hitting you, it likes to keep hitting? Or maybe I’m just being dramatic. I mean, it is Chicago. And I might be built to kick, but I’m still a girl four months shy of my seventeenth birthday and look it – when nasty, bitter, jealous witches aren’t twisting things – which seems to translate to ‘easy mark’ to every skeeve in the city. And I’m some sort of magical savior type ideal in another world, which means everyone there wants me and not in a good way. Go me. So, yeah, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I stuck to the lighted paths in Washington Park, where there were plenty of other late evening joggers. But there was still a guy. Because there is always a guy. Even in my hoodie and loose track pants, I’m so used to it – as I’m sure every woman under 90 is – that I wasn’t even really that surprised when he leaned forward, seizing me by the wrist as I ran past his bench.
“Hey there, pretty girl.” He grinned up at me. He was about my age, but he had that edge to him that a lot of the boys in the city get, the one that makes them older in the head and more dangerous than they should be. He was pasty and his skin full of old craters, the ghosts of what looked to be a nasty case of acne. His eyes were a strange mix of gray and green that made me think of something unpleasant growing in the dark. His clothes were too big for him and pretty much the only thing I could think was drug zombie, that name Jo-Anne always gave to the kids we saw that looked like they were a foot shy of their own grave. Or as though they just crawled out of it. Usually, that thought would have made me laugh a little, if only because the alternative was swallowing the reality of someone so young already having lost everything that made them alive, but there was something about this guy – or maybe just the fact that there wasn’t anyone really close by – that made my heart give a hard kick. I pulled away, but he stood up instead of releasing me. He looked a little surprised to find we were almost eye to eye; I’ve added a few inches since getting away from Eris. “Now what’s a pretty girl like you doing running all by your little lonesome?”
“Kicking the crap out of you, if you don’t back off,” I said. I hadn’t ever fought anyone or anything outside of Lucky’s gym, not counting my own, personal Prince -Not-So-Charming in Eris, but he didn’t count; he hadn’t had the chance to fight back. Still I knew I could hit this guy, that I could hurt him and make him sorry for grabbing me, and that made me straighten up and glare at him. And that’s when I felt it. Sparking through me like a live wire, a tingle like you get when your foot falls asleep. It was almost as unsettling as seeing that dragon flash against the bright, pale blue of the sky on Monday. Something that should not have been there, but which could not be denied. I backed away from him, twisting my arm out of his grasp in one, swift movement. The Eluna wasn’t with me. I hadn’t touched it in weeks, but that feeling was unmistakable. Warm and cold at the same time, like the wind chilled top of the water in a pool, laying over the sun warmed depths. It twisted and writhed through my veins, a vine taking root and beginning to spread. I looked down at myself, but saw nothing out of place, nothing to indicate what was happening inside.
“Is that any way for a lady to talk?” he asked and, all at once, I wanted him to leave me alone. Because I was remembering Mistle. I was remembering how terrifying it was to realize I was the one who turned him into a penguin. Oh, it sounds funny. Maybe it even is. But it could have been so much worse. And I know that the way I know the dreams I’m having of Shen are no regular dreams. It could have been Tai. Or I could have killed the wizard. One misplaced word, one half-ass wish and bam. No more breathing. It was the thing that had made me so desperate to get out of Eris, even before my mother tried to poison Tai. I hated feeling like I could, almost literally, kill with a look.
“Do I seriously look like a lady?” I asked in that sweet ‘I will break your nose’ tone I use so often on Tai. He never falls for it, but he also knows I could. I broke the prince’s nose while I was in Eris. I am not against doing it again, even if I wouldn’t hit Tai. My voice was trembling a little, though, and he must have thought I was scared of him, because he started to give me that mean, ugly smile of a predator that has found its next meal. “Go jump in the lake,” I said, the best thing I could come up with at the moment, through the fog of sudden fear that I could and would do something terrible if I didn’t get away from him right that second. Something I couldn’t take back. Something I would have to live with forever.
I turned sharply, starting to run. He grabbed my hair, dragging me backward, snapping the big clip I’d used to keep it up off my neck. Those things are hard to find; my hair breaks elastic bands and hair clips like a karate master breaks boards. I felt my anger surge and, with it, came the magic. Which should not have been possible, I kept thinking over and over, because this is a mostly dead world. There are only a few places where magic is possible and, even there, it is weak. I turned and what I saw made my skin break out in gooseflesh. He was a werewolf. His face was lengthening, his eyes glowing with that mad, wolfish light as he drug me toward him by my hair, knotted in fingers that were growing gnarled and dark. A dark gray pelt was sprouting, bones were twisting and reshaping under his skin, and I hit him because I was suddenly very frightened. Something hot enough to burn rushed through my arm and out my fist. He was knocked back, spattering gravel, yelping as he twisted and caught himself, shoes digging into the path as he slid. The way he looked up at me said I’d hurt him, but not enough. I hadn’t slowed him down, not even a little. I’d just made him mad. I looked around. There was nobody else in sight and the magic was gone, like it had never even been there. Like that dragon I thought I saw above the tower on Monday. I turned and sprinted away.
Wolves cannot really control their shifting. Or so I’d been told. It happens every night, without fail, and the moon has nothing at all to do with it. But the sun had been down a little while, at that point, and he had looked normal. In a malnourished, drug zombie sort of way. Of course, dragons aren’t supposed to be able to pop out of nothing and back into it, not here, anyway, and I’m not supposed to be able to call on the magic I was born with, but there we were. I was scared, startled, and panicking. Too much was happening at once. I ran the wrong way, toward the trees further into the park instead of back up toward the busy streets. Too late I thought to turn around and it was to see him loping after me, his stride easy, but swift. Far swifter than I could run, even at my best. And I was pretty sure that slapping him wouldn’t have the same effect it had had on Tai.
I scrambled under the trees, looking for something to hit him with, that might slow him down a little, and picked up a good sized branch. Then I turned and faced him. He’d slowed and he was growling, but it didn’t sound like anger so much as taunting. We both knew I was screwed. I tightened my grip on the branch. If he was going to drag me off, he was going to work for it. He lunged, but something black leapt out of the brush and caught him, tossing him with a snarl and a snap. There was a pause as the strange werewolf assessed his attacker. The wolf in front of me was Tai. His gleaming, ebony coat rippled over well defined muscle. The air around him sang with dangerous fury. He pulled himself up to his full height, eyes sparking with green fire, black lips pulled back from sharp, ivory teeth. He flexed his claws, barrel chest expanding, a low, feral warning rolling through the still, dark air. The other wolf was smaller and on the skinny side. He had a latticework of scars through his greasy, gray pelt. He snapped at the air between them and I realized he had a lot of experience fighting as a wolf. A small flicker of worry rippled through me. I didn’t run or even think of leaving Tai there on his own; the wolf has my loyalty too. Sure he tried to eat me, once or twice. But he also saved me a few times and he’s mine. Has been since the evening I knocked him on his butt in Eris. You don’t leave a creature that loyal to die for you. Even if you aren’t crushing on it’s human version. The smaller wolf feinted a couple times, but Tai stayed still, waiting. He has never fought as a wolf. But, even before Lucky’s, he went a round with a werewolf and won. If you count getting turned into a werewolf himself winning. Which I semi do. I mean, he’s alive. Which is more than we can say for the wolf that bit him.
The smaller wolf lunged for real, then, jumping forward with a snarl. Tai tried to catch him, but the smaller wolf was faster. They fell to a whirl of snapping and growling and yelping, claws flailing, moving almost too fast for me to tell who was winning. I felt a scream trying to work its way up my throat, but swallowed it; now was not the time for anyone to come running to save me. At best, I would expose Tai. At worst, there would be a werewolf epidemic in Chicago because there is nothing magic about werewolves. It is a sickness, plain and simple. A contagious one.
I backed away, my arms shaking, still clinging to my branch as Tai twisted and turned and clawed the smaller wolf, scrambling to keep up with it as it tried to get around him, to get to me. One bite. That would be all it would take. Then the smaller wolf could run off and, when I turned, I’d go to him. I could read that intention in the way he was fighting so hard to get to me, rather than trying to incapacitate Tai, who might be slower, but had far more power. He didn’t just intend to carry me off. He didn’t need to. A Werewolf always returns to its maker, if it can.
He managed to skate past Tai’s grabbing claws, teeth snapping on the air inches from me as I threw myself backward, swinging my branch. Tai caught him by the scruff as my branch connected with a satisfying crunch against his skull. The smaller wolf twisted, yelping, and bit Tai hard on the forearm. The snarling instantly grew more frenzied before it cut off with a neat, sharp snap.
Tai dropped the smaller wolf in a limp puddle of torn flesh, hair, and blood. It was already becoming human again, his gray hair receding beneath the torn and tattered remains of his clothes, exposing his pasty, pock marked skin. His gray-green eyes were open and staring at the tree branches above him, sightless. His throat was a gaping mess that made my stomach churn. I dropped the branch and knelt next to Tai. I was gasping a little and there were tears on my cheeks. His left forearm was a wreck and he whimpered a little as I reached for it. “Always this arm,” I said, trying not to start sobbing in earnest and failing. I gave a soft little cry, half despair and half release of the fear still coursing through me in huge waves. The wolf pressed up against me at once, gently rubbing his head against mine, like a mother dog with her pup.
Tai remembers everything from being a wolf, but he has no real control. It is an animal, plain and simple, and it is more canine than human. So it didn’t phase me in the least to have him lying up against me while I tried to see through my tears clearly enough to assess the damage. They just aren’t the same thing. They are two entirely different beings sharing one body. The wolf is no more than a particularly large and faithful dog to me. My weird, chest crushing feelings for Tai do not extend to the wolf any more than they would to a true animal. In the reverse, Tai’s feelings for me, whatever they might be, do not extend to the wolf. It is my protector, my guardian, and it does not care who or what Tai puts ahead of me; in its mind, its first loyalty lies with me.
We got home through back alleys and empty streets. If he hunches down just right and stays in the shadows, he just looks like an enormous wolfhound, so there were no outcries of werewolf when we did happen across other people. We’d learned that when we’d stayed out too long those first days back. Most people instinctively move away from him; they don’t need to see what he is to know they don’t want to get too close, and they mostly don’t seem to notice they are doing it. I have no doubt it he stood up or walked out of the shadows, there would be plenty of panic, but his wolf side isn’t stupid. So we got home without incident where Kelly took one look and grabbed bandages while Mr. Shizuka first chewed me out for going running alone, then grilled me about my attacker.
“He must have come from that other place,” he said, frowning. He won’t call Eris by its name. I’ve no doubt there are a myriad of reasons, but the biggest seems to be that he’s half afraid speaking its name will bring bad luck. I can’t blame him there. “You should not be out at night on your own.” This time, it is less yelling and more asking me for a decent reason that I’d broken the unspoken rule about me not going off without a chaperon.
I glanced at Kelly. I knew she’d heard the whole discussion with Tai and knew why I was upset, but she didn’t say anything. “I know, I’m sorry,” I said.
Mr. Shizuka shook his head. “What will the police think?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, he looked human enough when he was dead, but he didn’t look like he was murdered so much as mauled.” I bit my lip hard enough to draw blood; I could feel tears coming on again. I didn’t tell them about the magic. I didn’t even know what had happened. Now that we were back, it almost felt like I’d imagined it or something.
“Your hand.” I was still so flustered, so firmly in the grip of my fear and surprise, that I hadn’t even noticed. But, when Mr. Shizuka reached for the hand I’d hit the boy with, a sharp pain ran over my arm. I looked down and saw that the skin along the back of my hand was an angry, lobster red. “What happened?”
Maybe I should have told him, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I would become homeless if I showed too many signs of my oddities. And I was still in denial. “I scraped it on a branch I was trying to hit the guy with. Totally bull. Anyone with eyes could see it was a burn, but he didn’t press the issue. Tai’s dad can sometimes be extra stern, but he’s also a nice guy.
Mr. Shizuka glanced at Kelly. “Maybe I should take the offer.”
Kelly looked up from Tai’s forearm and the cream she was layering over the bite. He had other scratches here and there, but they looked superficial. “And how would we get Skylar there? It isn’t like they’ll just let us take her, not without adoption papers or something. She isn’t eighteen yet.” She sounded like she was challenging him, which was strange because Kelly and Mr. Shizuka never fight.
I looked from one to the other, startled. “I don’t understand.”
“My boss has offered me a promotion. But taking the position would mean moving to Tokyo,” Mr. Shizuka said. He looked back at Kelly. “We can find a way. Even if it means going a little off the map.”
“You mean illegal.” Kelly said. But she didn’t say it in such a way that sounded like disagreement.
“Or you could leave me here,” I said. I wasn’t even aware I was going to say it until I did. I felt an unpleasant twist in my stomach. I missed my own family. The Shizukas made that bearable. What was I supposed to do if they left me too?
“No,” Mr. Shizuka said before Kelly could say a word, which surprised me; of the two of them, I’d always thought he was the one more likely to see me as a burden. I may have saved his son, but I was the whole reason he needed saving in the first place.
Kelly finished wrapping Tai’s arm and looked at me. “No more running at night, okay?” I nodded. “There is stew in the kitchen, could you grab some for both of you and go watch TV in your room?”
“Am I in trouble?” I asked, feeling that urge to cry returning fast.
Kelly shook her head. “No. Nobody is in trouble. We just need to talk about this Japan thing.” She smiled and reached out to hug me and, for a minute, I didn’t miss my mom at all right then because Kelly is a really good mom too. “Do you mind poking your head in and making sure Kylie is asleep? She’s gotten real sneaky about waiting for me to leave the room, then sitting up and playing with her toys.” She didn’t say what we had all experienced. That no matter how many times we took her toys out of her crib, they still managed, somehow, to get back in. Nobody mentioned that, a lot of times, when she was sitting up, playing, she was babbling to someone who wasn’t there.
Thankfully, Kylie was asleep, her breathing even and deep, which was good because I didn’t think I could manage that creepy feeling that someone else was in the room with her and glaring at me for interrupting their playtime. I reached in and pulled the teddy bear Tai and I had made for her at Build-A-Bear out of her crib. “You know she could roll over and suffocate on that,” I said, trying not to feel like someone heard me say it. And was scoffing at me for thinking they would let her get hurt. Ghosts, in Eris, are pretty much like people. Here on Earth the thought really scared me. I left the room, pausing in the hall. I could hear them talking. They weren’t arguing, really, but they weren’t exactly keeping their voices down.
“You need to tell her,” Kelly said.
“And what good would it do. She’s safe here, with us. I made a promise.”
I might have stayed and kept listening, even though I knew it was wrong, but the wolf leaned into me, pushing me along. I walked down the hall and climbed the last, narrow set of stairs to my small, cozy room. Tai came along behind me and curled up to lick the stew from his bowl by my bed. The effect of him being this big, weird dog is sometimes so complete I forget he remembers. Once or twice, I’ve started to change my clothes while he was in the room. Tonight, though, I stepped into the closet to change. Not just because I wanted privacy, but because I wanted to check the Eluna.
I keep it wrapped up in one of Tai’s old t-shirts, the one he wore in Eris, at the back of the closet. I changed into sweats, then crawled back to pull it out of its corner. I unwrapped it and spent a few moments looking at it, my heart beating too fast. I felt warm breath against my neck as Tai laid his huge head on my shoulder, whining, worry clear in his green-gold eyes. The silvery orb, which had looked dull and mostly magic-less since we left Eris, was glowing with a soft, shimmering light. A light which washed up my arm in a cool, silky ripple that pulled the lingering heat and pain right out of my hand, leaving pale, unmarred skin in its wake as it retreated back into the orb, which went back to just being a shiny, silver ball that doesn’t reflect anything. Breathing in short, staccato gasps and telling myself not to panic, I quickly folded the t-shirt back over the Eluna and put it back in its corner. Then I leaned up against Tai for a few minutes, trying to figure out what to do and how much I should worry. Dragons and pictures, magic and werewolves, it all just felt too much.
I know it isn’t exactly Meg’s fault or anything. But it sort of feels like everything started falling apart the day she started coming around. If she’d minded her own business and not felt the need to take that photo or share it with her bitchy little friends, tonight wouldn’t have even happened. Sure, there might have been a wolf stalking me in the city, but, until she came around, I always had Tai with me. Now, thanks to her, I feel like I’m on a train going straight to hell and it feels like I’m taking the journey alone.
Like I said. I hate her.