Elks Ridge, Alaska
The endless summer light shone through the bedroom window as the all-too familiar sound of tires on unpaved driveway reached my ears. I pulled on a clean t-shirt and shorts, tossing the pajamas I’d been wearing into the hamper next to the door. One of drawbacks to living in a state where the days last 20 hours in July is that you never know when your landlord might show up bearing calorie-laden gifts.
Dean MacAfee’s SUV barreled into the yard and came to a stop just outside the cabin door. Arranging my hair into a lopsided bun, I crossed to the upstairs window and watched from behind the curtain as he emerged from his vehicle. In each hand he carried a freshly made pecan pie, courtesy of his wife.
I was getting sick of pecan pies.
As of late I’d been getting sick of a lot of things. TV sitcoms, frozen pizza, pints of ice cream, paperback novels and day-old socks with holes in the toes. Thunderstorms, tabby cats, eggs on toast, all songs by Taylor Swift. Toast. Cell phones. Local news broadcasts. The postcards my family sent from their summer home in Nantucket.
And those were just the nouns. I had a whole list of active verbs to add to the ever-growing list of Things Haley Doesn’t Want to Deal with Anymore. Weeding the garden behind the cabin. Getting dressed. Getting out of bed. That kind of trivial thing.
Cody told me I was depressed. I told him I wasn’t and that was truth. Okay, maybe not the whole truth but the word depressed didn’t quite cover the hurricane of unresolved emotions whirling around in my head. I wasn’t so much depressed as I was lost. In flux. Unsure what direction I should be steering my life toward or even what I should be doing on a day-to-day basis. It had been months since the two of us moved back into the cabin I’d rented and with every passing day I became less and less sure. Of myself, of the future, even of Cody.
No, that’s not right. Cody was the one solid thing in the summer of my discontent but I didn’t want to depend on him for that very reason. Ever since we’d arrived at Elks Ridge he seemed happier, more at peace than I would have thought possible.
Not that I should have been all that surprised. What else would he be after sixteen years spent as an Arcticon lab rat? He was finally free.
And he had finally found his people. Well, his wolves, anyway.
Dean bounded onto the porch and stood outside the downstairs window. “Brought a little somethin’ to tide ya over until dinner tomorrow,” he shouted.
I’ll admit it. I considered pretending I wasn’t home—despite the pick-up truck sitting in the barn not ten yards away from where Dean had parked. Subtlety has never been one of my strong points.
I crossed to the door and threw it open, plastering a 100-watt smile across my face.
Dean took one look at me and furrowed his brow. “You feelin’ okay, Haley?”
Acting has never been one of my strong points either.
“Never better,” I said brightly, lifting the pies out of Dean’s hands and heading toward the kitchen at the back of the cabin. I wondered if it would be rude if I didn’t ask him to stay for a slice like I usually did. Not that I minded my landlord’s presence. When he got going, he was a pretty good conversationalist—he knew just about everything going in town, not to mention the backstories on everybody who lived within a 50-mile radius of Elks Ridge. Granted, we’re not talking about a huge segment of the population. Elks Ridge wasn’t exactly the mecca of civilization.
Back in March, when I first arrived in Alaska, I’d loved it. Loved its beauty and its wildness and its distance from all the things I’d never been able to get away from back in Massachusetts. I still loved those the place, I just couldn’t feel it.
I couldn’t feel anything, really.
Dean stood in the kitchen doorway, thumbs hooked in his jeans. “I’d stay and have a piece, but I gotta head out. I told Ed I’d help him get the fireworks display set up for next week.”
A stab of disappointment shot through me. Go figure. “No problem,” I said. “I’ve got a lot to do around here anyway.”
He had the grace not to smile, God love him. “You’re still plannin’ on coming out tomorrow night, right? Thought I’d throw some steaks on the grill.”
I bit my lip. “I’m a vegetarian now,’ I apologized, “but as long as you’ve got some salad I’ll be fine.”
“Keep forgettin’ about that,” he said. “Don’t you worry, Nora’s makes a helluva pasta carbonara. We’ll have that instead.”
I debated whether to point out that carbonara had bacon in it and had decided not to when a shadow crossed his face. “Bacon,” he said.
I nodded. “Bacon.”
“Oops.” Something about his befuddled state amused the hell out of me. Cody had only been gone a week but sometimes it felt as if the MacAfees were my only remaining link to civilization.
“Well, Nora’ll think of something,” he said, pushing off from the wall he’d been leaning up against.
“Tell her thanks for the pies.”
“You can tell herself tomorrow night,” he said. “You’re not bringing that boyfriend of yours, are you?”
“He’s still away,” I said quickly, “on business.”
“Sure seems to work hard,” said Dean, with the emphasis on seems. “When’s he gettin’ back this time?”
“I’m, uh, not sure.”
He grunted. Or maybe he was just clearing his throat.
“I’ll be sure to save some of Nora’s pies for him,” I said. “He really loves them.”
Another grunt. A definite grunt.
Dean wasn’t a fan of Cody. Whether it was because he didn’t approve of the two of us living together or he didn’t like the way he was always disappearing, I couldn’t be sure. I suppose I couldn’t blame him. From an outsider’s point of view it did look as if Cody spent more time away than he did at the cabin, especially over the past month. There were things about shifting he needed to learn, abilities he hadn’t even realized he had that he was trying to understand. I didn’t blame him but I couldn’t follow him either.
I was done with shifting. The more time that had passed after I’d attacked Doc Blackfeather and escaped to join the tornuaqi, the more sure I was I needed to forget that part of myself. If I couldn’t be sure what I’d become when I shifted, then there was only one solution.
I couldn’t shift.
Of course, Cody didn’t agree. For months, he’d tried to convince me to meet Dakotah Billings and the other shifters in his pack. He wanted me to learn alongside him how to control my powers, to develop them. How the hell are you going to fight Colin Hamilton if you don’t? What if he comes after you again?
He had a point but it was one I couldn’t consider, not at the moment. Despite everybody’s fears, Hamilton hadn’t surfaced since he’d appeared on TV to announce the closing of the Arcticon plant.
Maybe he had a new agenda, one that didn’t involve me. Or Cody.
“Oh, almost forgot,” said Dean, “I got somethin’ for you.”
My eyes went to his hands but they were empty.
“Left it in the car,” he said by way of explanation. “Be right back.”
For the first time in weeks I felt a surge of interest in something besides Supernatural reruns and Cherry Garcia. Probably just another postcard from Nantucket, I told myself, but that didn’t stop me from following him through the living room and pushing open the screen door.
After the dim interior, the sunlight was blindingly white. Squinting in the direction of the SUV, I saw Dean pull a large yellow envelope off the front seat and tuck it under his arm.
Not a postcard.
Well, that still didn’t mean anything. Except for the beating of my heart, I almost managed to convince myself whatever was in that package had no importance whatsoever.
I crossed to the edge of the porch and held out my hands for it.
“That’s about the most excited I’ve seen you in weeks,” said Dean, his mouth tugging up at one corner. “Looks like you’ve been expecting this.”
I shook my head. “No,” I said a little too vehemently. “I’m not expecting anything.”
Dean gave me a knowing look. “Maybe that’s the trouble.”
I was tempted to ask what he meant but I wanted to open the package and I couldn’t do that with him standing there. Not that I had the slightest idea what was in it. I didn’t recognize the handwriting either and predictably there was no return address. According to the postmark, the package had been mailed from Anchorage several days earlier but other than that its exterior told me nothing. It was a thick package, though a not heavy one.
“I appreciate you bringing it out,” I said, turning over the things I could say that might encourage him to leave sooner rather than later. “You didn’t need to do that.”
“What else has an old geezer like me got to do?” he asked. “Kenny over at the post office said you hadn’t been in lately so I offered to deliver it, seeing as I was already comin’ out this way.”
As I was rifling through excuses for abandoning him on the porch, Dean gave me a nod and bid me goodbye. I suppose it’s not a huge stretch if I say my impatience with the visit wasn’t entirely lost upon him.
When he reached the SUV, he backed out in a cloud of dust and screeched away from the yard. Driving safely had never been one of my landlord’s strong points. I was just glad I hadn’t been forced to ride in the passenger’s seat since he’d brought me out to the cabin last winter.
I stood at the edge of the porch and waved, counting the seconds until the SUV disappeared from sight. A few seconds later I found myself alone with the package. It had been taped shut but other than that there was nothing to suggest it contained anything of value.
So why was my hand shaking?
I touched my fingernail to the edge and stopped. A fingernail wasn’t enough, I was going to need scissors.
If I hadn’t turned when I did I would have missed it.
As it was, I shouldn’t have stopped. Better, much better, if I’d gone on walking into the house as if I’d seen nothing at all.
The wolf stood at the edge of the yard, about a 100 yards from where I stood, almost hidden in the field of wildflowers and long grass. Its dark fur gleamed in the light, lifting slightly in the breeze. Its eyes watched me watching it. Perfectly still, perfectly silent.
I clutched the package tightly and hurried inside, locking the door behind me and pulling the bolt shut. As I rushed upstairs, package still pressed against me, I grabbed Dean’s shotgun off the rack.
Four months ago I’d been a lousy shot. Now I was damn good.
Practice makes perfect.
Laying the package down onto the bed, I crossed to the window and peered through the curtains toward the place where the wolf had stood.
I scanned the horizon but there was no sign of a wolf. The yard was empty.
Maybe it had slipped into the woods at the edge of the field.
Maybe there hadn’t been any wolf.
How many times had I imagined that very scene—or dreamt it?
If I had imagined it. Over the past few months there had been moments—when I was lying out on the porch or heading toward the barn or gathering vegetables from the garden—when I’d felt something watching me. There had never been a wolf though, not even a scent of one carried by the breeze.
Maybe it was one of Dakotah’s shifters. It would make sense for him—or for Cody—to send one of the pack to watch over me. Now that I thought of it, it would have been madness to think they wouldn’t have done just that.
That must be it, I told myself. It’s got to be.
If it weren’t for the way every hair on the back of my neck was standing on end I could almost have believed it.
The package lay on the bed, right where I’d left it.
I grabbed a pair of scissors out of a drawer and sat on the edge of the quilt, setting the envelope down in my lap. It was addressed to Haley Sawyer at the proper address in small, neat handwriting that defied further interpretation. Whether the sender had been a man or a woman was anybody’s guess.
I opened the scissors and pressed the point into the corner of the envelope, slicing the edge open as carefully as I could manage. The hand holding the scissors was shaking so hard now I could have been an addict fresh out of rehab. When I reached the bottom, I felt inside the opening and grabbed the book that lay inside.
No, not a book.
I held it out in front of me with both hands, laying it on top of the envelope. On the surface there was nothing remarkable about it. With its gold logo and crimson cover it was no different than any other Harvard notebook, the kind I’d seen my brothers hunched over before exams. Almost reluctantly, I lifted the cover and turned to the first page.
There was no name on it but I didn’t need one. My father’s handwriting slanted across page after page of lined paper. In a scientist’s stilted prose, he began to describe his journey into the mind of God.