Elks Ridge, Alaska
|Photo by Kevin McNeal|
Dr. Ben Marshall couldn’t stop looking at the door and it wasn’t because he was expecting Santa. He knew they were coming for him, it was only a question of when. Today or tomorrow or, if he were lucky, the upcoming holiday might prevent them from noticing his absence for another day or two.
But eventually, inevitably, they would notice. Then they would get suspicious and search the laboratory, at which point they would realize he had taken the boy with him.
And when they did they would kill him.
Ben glanced nervously around the small cabin that had been his home for the past year. Located about five miles outside of town, it was what he liked to describe as simple. By which he meant that it ran on a generator and didn’t have most of the modern conveniences associated with “comfort.” It was far less impressive than his expensive colonial in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and yet it held a certain charm for him, despite the fact that he had been lonely—desperately lonely—for the past 11 months. A Christmas tree stood in one corner of the living room, lit by the glow of a crackling fire.
At the opposite end of the cabin a little boy sat coloring at the kitchen table. His dark hair fell across his eyes but he didn’t look as if it bothered him.
Who would have guessed such a cute kid could cause so much trouble? Certainly not Ben. Not in the beginning anyway. When Ben had first arrived at Elks Ridge he had been thrilled at the prospect of having virtually unlimited resources to pursue his own research. For one year he wouldn’t have to worry about balancing his teaching load at Harvard with his own work, nor would he have to waste precious time applying for grants and filling out endless paperwork. For most of his career he had been forced to limit the scope of his research to such an extent that he had come to feel like a glorified paper pusher. Before he’d even attempted to test his serum on monkeys he had spent four years administering miniscule doses to lab rats. Then, last fall, when he’d finally been on the brink of introducing the serum to human subjects the rug had been pulled out from under him. His request for funding was denied outright by the government because it was deemed “too risky.” Sure, he could go on performing tests on lab rats for the next five or ten or twenty years. As for anything more than that it didn’t look good—at least not according to Ben’s department chair, who diplomatically suggested he “shift his focus.”
He couldn’t shift his focus. It wasn’t possible, because for Ben Marshall stopping his work on the entelechon antidote would mean giving up on the most important thing in his life. It would mean giving up on Haley. And on Kelly too, he supposed, since he wasn’t sure his wife would be able to survive Haley’s death. Though Haley seemed healthy at birth, not long afterward she’d been diagnosed with Hacklin’s disease, a rare blood disorder that would eventually kill her. Ben had promptly dropped everything in order to pursue a cure, despite near impossibility of success. It had taken him four relatively fruitless years at Harvard and an additional eleven months at Arcticon. Now, finally, he had the cure.
The only problem was he had to destroy it.
The boy finished coloring the picture of Rudolph he had been working on and held it up proudly for Ben to see. The records at Arcticon said his name was Cody but Ben had known almost from the start it wasn’t his given name. It had taken more than a little detective work on his part to track down the boy’s mother but he had finally done it. A week earlier he’d taken two days off and hired a bush pilot to fly him to a remote fishing village set at the state’s northernmost tip. The woman’s eyes had filled when he showed her a few recent photos of the boy, who disappeared a year earlier, shortly before Ben’s arrival at Arcticon. Even then Ben hadn’t been sure. What grieving mother wouldn’t cling to any shred of hope that her missing child might be found? But she had willingly agreed to give him a blood sample and within 24 hours Ben knew that she was definitely Cody’s mother. Despite the changes in the boy, the DNA match was beyond question. Now all he had to do was wait for her to show up.
Easier said than done, under the circumstances.
Ben smiled encouragingly but said nothing, since the boy couldn’t truly understand him. Cody was about the same age as Haley and seeing him smile, just as she would have had she been there with him, physically hurt Ben. He ached to be with his daughter but it was impossible. At the moment she and Kelly were 3,000 miles away, safe in Cambridge.
It had been difficult—even unbearable—to be apart from them for nearly a year but it was his only choice. When Colin Hamilton appeared in his tiny campus office ten months ago and offered him the chance to pursue his research on entelechon at a state-of-the-art lab just north of the Arctic Circle, Ben took less than one day to decide in favor of the proposal. Which was lucky, because that was all the time Hamilton had given him to decide.
Funny that the time limit hadn’t struck Ben as odd at the time. Not to mention the fact that Hamilton had known about his research at all. Like most mistakes in judgment, Ben’s lack of skepticism seemed glaringly stupid now.
Now it was too late. The best he could hope to do was to return Cody to his mother and return to Harvard as quickly as possible. He wouldn’t be able to stay in Cambridge of course, but Ben hoped he would find a position teaching overseas. He had some connections at Oxford University and thought he might even find a way to continue his work there. Because he wasn’t giving up. Entelechon still might be the miracle drug he believed it could be but he needed to alter the formula to eliminate what he had forced himself to think of as “side effects” caused by the DNA plasmids he had used to create entelechon. Granted it was those side effects which he had noted in his original research proposal—the one that Hamilton must have gotten hold of—that interested the self-made billionaire.
Ben touched the vial in his pants pocket, needing to feel that the serum was still there. As much as he regretted what had happened at Arcticon he wasn’t willing to leave behind the one thing that might save his daughter. Not in its present form, especially now that the side effects were magnified a thousand fold, but without a few vials of the formula as a base he couldn’t hope to cure his daughter.
Everything—Cody’s pain, the suffering of many others—would have been for nothing.
Off in the distance a wolf howled, then another, and another, until the cabin was filled with the eerie sound. Cody raised his head and howled in unison with them and it seemed as if the language of the pack made more sense to him than anything humans did. Granted, this was partly because the boy had had no exposure to “normal life” from the time he’d been abducted. Would his mother still love him despite the changes that had occurred? Instinct told him she would—that the closest human beings came to unconditional love was the love mothers held for their children. He remembered the way hugged him before he’d boarded his plane at Logan and felt his throat tighten.
The boy suddenly tensed. Half rising from the table, he closed his eyes and sniffed the air. Ben stiffened.
Headlights appeared at the top of the ridge. He glanced at the clock on the kitchen wall. Seven o’clock. That would most likely be the mother, right on time. Ben crossed to the bedroom and gave Cody’s small suitcase a cursory inspection before shutting it. There wasn’t much—a pair of pajamas, a few t-shirts and jeans—but then again what could you expect for the subject of a lab experiment? If he’d had more time he would have swung into town and picked up a few more clothes for the boy but Ben wanted to get this done as quickly as possible. Already he’d waited nearly two hours for her to show up. As an afterthought he walked over to the gun rack next to the door and laid his hand on the barrel of the shotgun he’d bought last week. He wasn’t exactly a sure shot when it came to guns but he wanted to have some type of weapon, just in case.
The headlights pulled up in front of the house and went out. Ben heard a door slam and went over to stand by the window next to the door. From his half concealed position he tried to make out the shapes of his visitors but there was no moon and it was too dark to see anything clearly. Cody tilted his head to one side, curious but not afraid. Ben took that as a good sign and flashed him what he hoped was a reassuring smile. The boy took no notice but remained motionless, his eyes fixed on the door.
Voices. Laughter. The laughter of a child.
A stab of fear cut through him. His mind couldn’t form the sentence, there was only the one word.
Cody’s eyes darted from Ben to the door and back again. Ben wondered whether he’d ever heard a child laugh before. Had his mother laughed as she sang lullabies to him? Did some part of him remember? Certainly the boy hadn’t heard laughter at Arcticon. Quite the opposite, Ben thought bitterly as he laid the shotgun back in its slot in the rack. As he crossed to the door and placed his hand on the knob he realized it was shaking badly. Please God, don’t let it be them. Please God, let them be safe in Cambridge, wrapping presents and singing Christmas carols.
On the other side of the door, Haley was asking Kelly when they could visit the North Pole and meet Santa. Ben opened the door before Kelly even had the chance to knock.
“Surprise!” they both yelled at once. He was surrounded by them, engulfed. Haley lifted her arms and he raised her to him, hugging her tightly. Her auburn hair fell across his face as she planted a cold, wet kiss on his cheek. Haley and Kelly were both talking at once, oblivious to the fact that he wasn’t nearly as excited as he should have been.
“Merry Christmas,” Kelly whispered in his ear. “Like your presents?”
“I love them,” Ben mumbled, hoping she didn’t hear the fear in his voice. Haley was lighter than she had been six months ago. Her face was paler too. Why hadn’t Kelly told him?
It was Haley who saw Cody first.
“Who’s that, daddy?” she asked, pointing over his shoulder at the boy, who stood half concealed behind Ben’s reading chair.
Kelly pulled away from him, her eyes searching the cabin for another presence. He felt her tenseness, her confusion. If he hadn’t been so damn scared he would have laughed. She thought he had another woman there.
Cody backed up against the wall, unnerved by the commotion of their arrival. After what he’d been through it was only natural that he would be wary around strangers but Ben knew the boy’s skittishness had more to do with the injection he’d received. The injection Ben had given him.
Haley walked slowly toward the boy, instinctively holding the palm of her hand out to him as if she were approaching a wild animal.
“Hi,” she said gently. “I’m Haley.”
The boy nodded almost imperceptibly. His dark eyes studied her but he said nothing. Haley took another step forward so that she was only a few inches away from him. Ben was on the verge of calling her back—who knew what the boy might be capable of?—when Haley knelt down and stared intently into his face. “Who are you?”
“Cody.” It almost a whisper yet the name rang out across the room as if he had shouted it.
Ben’s eyes met Kelly’s as she turned to face him. Between them there was an unspoken question. More like an ultimatum, Ben thought. As in You’d better tell me what the hell is going on here.
Ben cleared his throat and tried to explain it in a way that would sound plausible. “The boy—Cody—was at the lab where I was working.”
Kelly said nothing.
Cody crept up behind Haley so that his hand brushed against her arm. Ben wondered if she were in any danger and decided she wasn’t. Cody trusted her.
“His mother’s coming to take him back to the village where he was born. She should be here any minute now.”
“How old is he?”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I think he’s about five or six.”
“He looks older.”
“I know.” He did look older. Cody’s muscles were already beginning to develop and his shoulders were broad. It was the eyes though, that really made Ben wonder. The boy’s gaze was steady and knowing. Whenever Cody stared at him, Ben had to remind himself he was looking into the eyes of a child.
Ben reached for Kelly’s hand but when he touched it he didn’t feel the old warmth. Her closed expression told him she knew something was wrong.
Well, something was wrong. Very wrong. And if they didn’t get out of there soon things were going to get worse.
“As soon as the mother gets here, we’re leaving.”
“Leaving?” Kelly laughed uneasily, trying to take it all in. “Are you telling me we traveled for 24
hours straight just to get up and get back on a plane.”
“You shouldn’t have come,” Ben told her. “I’m sorry. I can’t explain everything now, but we need to get out of here, okay?”
After a slight hesitation, she nodded. “Okay.”
Before Ben even registered what was happening, Cody leapt behind the couch and dragged Haley along with him.
“What’s he doing?” Kelly asked, rushing across the cabin toward her daughter. “What’s wrong with him?”
Behind the couch, Haley was silent. She found the boy’s hand and held it tightly. His breath came fast and shallow but he remained motionless, waiting.
As if he were moving underwater, Ben turned toward the door just in time to see it kicked open. Two thugs wearing ski masks burst into the room, guns raised.
“Watch out!” Ben shouted at his wife.
Unfortunately that was all the warning Kelly Marshall ever got.
She was dead before she hit the floor.
Ben wasn’t sure what happened after that. Screams filled the room and the air was heavy with the strong, coppery scent of blood. One of the thugs grabbed him and wrenched his arms behind him.
The other began searching the cabin, opening closet doors and swearing.
“Where’s the kid?” the man holding his arms demanded.
When Ben didn’t answer, the thug slammed him into a wall and asked again. Ben prayed Cody and Haley would keep quiet. “He’s gone. His mother came to get him an hour ago.”
“I hope for your sake you’re fucking lying.”
The man searching the cabin returned a few minutes later and headed in the direction of the couch.
Ben glanced at the shotgun rack, which was only about four feet away from where he was standing.
“Don’t even think about it,” the thug warned. “You’re coming with us.”
Ben started to protest, but the thug near the couch was lifting Cody from his hiding spot by the back of his t-shirt. Cody was struggling wildly, making noises that should have been coming from an animal, not a child.
Where was Haley?
It didn’t matter. They hadn’t seen her. That was all that counted.
“Jesus,” the second thug yelled, letting go of the t-shirt and cradling his right arm. “He bit me. The little brat actually bit me.”
“Well, he’s part wolf for Christ’s sake, what’d you expect?” his companion shot back at him.
Ben strained to see if Haley was still behind the couch. Was she okay?
The thug turned his head to look at his friend’s wound. Ben saw his chance and took it. Summoning all his strength, he elbowed his attacker in the stomach and dove for his gun. By some miracle, Ben managed to get hold of it and aimed it toward the living room. His hands were shaking but he steadied them.
“Put the kid down,” Ben said evenly. “And get out.”
The thug he had wrestled the gun away from actually smiled. “Sure thing,” he said with mock politeness. “You just give me the boy and the formula you stole and me and my cohort here will be on our way.”
Ben couldn’t stop the surge of anger from rising up inside him. “I didn’t steal it, you idiot. I invented it. If it belongs to anybody, it belongs to me.”
“The nuances of the situation don’t concern me,” the thug went on unfazed. “All I want is the formula. We’ll leave the kid alone if you give us that.”
It was Ben’s turn to smile, though it was more bravado than anything else. He knew damn well they were lying but he also knew it was going to be all but impossible to get away from them. “Just get out and I promise I won’t call the police. Please. Let us leave and go back to our home. Let the kid go back to his family.”
“You’re not gonna shoot that gun.”
“Don’t try me.”
In a single easy motion, the first thug hurled himself at Ben and retrieved the gun. He hit Ben so hard on the side of the head that he collapsed on impact. He felt warm blood trickling down his cheek as he sank to the floor.
Ben’s heart stopped.
Haley climbed out from her hiding place and started making her way toward him. He could see that even crossing the room was difficult for her now and the realization hurt him to the core. By the time she stumbled into his arms he could feel her heart beating wildly in her chest. After a minute he realized they were both sobbing. He smoothed her hair and tried to comfort her but he couldn’t.
“Give us the vial or we kill your kid,” the first thug said flatly, as if the entire episode bored him.
“Not a good idea,” Ben said, forcing himself to sound as bored as the man holding his child at gunpoint. In his arms, Haley’s sobbing had quieted. “Kill her and you’ll spend the rest of your life in jail. Do you really want to do that, especially when your boss couldn’t care less about what happens to you?”
The first thug clicked the safety and aimed the gun at Haley’s head. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
Cody started howling.
Not just crying that sounded like howling. Not even the howling Cody did when he sang along with the wolves. No, this was howling like Ben had never heard in his life, the kind that cut through you and made you want to start screaming yourself.
“Shut him up!” the thug holding the gun barked at his companion. “Now!
It was already too late. Through the cabin windows, Ben could see them coming. A dark mass flowing over the ridge, picking up speed as it came toward them.
“GET THE WOLF KID INTO THE VAN,” the thug holding the gun screamed, lunging for Ben and dragging him toward the door.
Ben turned his head over his shoulder and watched them running. He was awed by the beauty of the wolves moving as one toward the cabin. For a split second he forgot his fear, forgot he was going to die, even forgot Haley was going to die too. For a split second he could almost understand why Colin
Marshall had tricked him into doing what he had done.
His attacker was dragging him across the hardwood floor, screaming that if Ben didn’t get his ass in gear they were all going to die.
Ben lifted his boot and kicked him in the crotch.
The second thug scooped Cody into his arms and ran through the open door into the night. The boy was howling and scratching and screaming but the man held him in an iron grip.
The wolves were closer now but they weren’t howling anymore. They were silent, intent on their quarry.
The first thug stood in the doorway and aimed his gun at the wolves. He shot until there were no more bullets. Ben strained to see if any of the wolves had fallen but it was too dark. From somewhere not very distant an animal cried out in pain.
“Looks like you’re out of bullets,” Ben said. “And out of luck.”
“I don’t give up that easily,” the thug said, grabbing Ben’s shotgun from the rack. On his way back to the door he shoved Ben aside and stood in the doorway. He took aim and pulled the trigger.
Another cry of pain.
“How’d you like that!” the thug cried out triumphantly. He raised the gun and shot again.
“Stop!” Ben cried out. “There are too many of them. All you’re going to do is make them angrier than they already are. Close the door before it’s too late!”
“They’re not gonna get any closer,” the thug said. “Not when I’ve got a gun.”
“I don’t think so,” Ben said quietly. He got up off the floor and came up behind the thug, laying his hand on the shotgun. “Now give me the gun and get inside.”
The bullet tore into Ben’s gut with so much force he staggered backward against the wall. Haley tried to reach him but her legs gave out before she could get there. The room spun crazily as Ben slid to the floor.
The thug was turning back toward the open door when the first wolf leapt onto him, knocking him backward with supernatural force. Others pushed through the door after the first wolf and converged around the fallen man.
The thug’s screams ricocheted through cabin as the wolves tore at his flesh.
Shakily Ben reached into his pocket as the wolves swarmed around him, sniffing the blood that covered his mid-section and nuzzling him with their noses. The vial was still there, smooth to the touch. Haley crawled the rest of the way toward him, whimpering quietly, her amber eyes huge.
“Are the wolves going to kill us, daddy?”
Ben drew the vial out of his pocket and held it against his chest. There was no point in lying.
“I don’t know.” He drew Haley closer to him, covering her with his blood. “I hope not.”
He broke the glass top off the vial and poured its contents into Haley’s mouth. He’d never given entelechon as anything other than an injection and in the moments before he lost consciousness he wondered if he’d killed his daughter. At the same time he felt a jolt of satisfaction. The wolves were swarming past them, filling the cabin. He heard the thug’s muffled screams and the silence that followed.
Somewhere in the distance an engine roared to life.
He’d wanted more time to perfect entelechon. Was the latest version, created only days earlier, powerful enough to work its magic in a single dose? Would it result in the same side effects as before?
He had no idea.
But if it did work Haley might not die after all.
I looked up from my computer and saw Zack Mayo holding out his agenda book. As usual. Two months as a student teacher and my life had already settled into what I liked to think of as a pattern and not a routine. I scrawled my initials next to “BR, Monday, 9:04 a.m.” and told him to wait until Brianna got back.
Returning to the list before me, I continued to making my way through the names on my homeroom attendance roster. One missed name and Sheila up at the front office would be all over me about it. Not to mention if I made the mistake of marking the wrong kid absent.
I did that exactly once. I won’t get into a blow-by-blow but the aftermath wasn’t pretty. After our little tete-a-tete we tried to steer clear of each other. Still, she had the advantage. She’d been at Carver High 34 years whereas I wasn’t sure I’d make it through the end of the semester as a student teacher.
I hit the send button at the bottom of the roster and pushed my chair back from the desk. Zack was already back in his seat by then. I wasn’t sure what it was that was bothering me about him. I’d never seen him talking to anybody but there were a lot of quiet kids at CHS and they never gave me the creeps. I hadn’t exactly been the prom queen type in high school either, believe me. But since the beginning of the year Zack had never spoken a single word to anyone. Day after day he sat with his hands folded on his desk, the silent center of the eye of a storm of gossip.
Not that I blamed him. Zack was so clearly different from the other kids. And I guess it was nice to see at least one person was watching the news broadcast that blared across the room. Despite the rule that required all students to watch the morning news during homeroom hardly anybody actually did. Most of the kids would copy each other’s homework assignments or talk about the latest breakup. I’d even considered just shutting off the TV myself because it was way too loud and the volume control didn’t work, which meant everybody had to raise their voices to talk over the sound. Which meant the place was usually a zoo.
When I asked the assistant principal about skipping the daily broadcast, his answer was a flat-out no. Apparently if we didn’t keep the news on we’d lose our contract with Channel 2 and they would take back the TV sets suspended from the corners of every classroom. I didn’t think that would be such a bad thing but I kept my thoughts to myself.
Zack’s eyes kept darting toward the door. Maybe I should just let him go and say to hell with the rules, I thought. Brianna had shown up without makeup and probably wouldn’t be back until about five seconds before the bell, her face lit up like some kind of psychedelic Christmas tree.
Dylan Tatnuck, a drug dealer, and Luisa Ramon, another junior who dabbled in all things medicinal, were lingering at the pencil sharpener, waiting for me to turn my back so they could make their exchange. I sniffed and was accosted by a riot of scents, both pleasant and unpleasant. Sweat, perfume, Germ-X, ink, notebook paper, bad breath…and…Vicodin? I couldn’t be sure but that was my best guess. Probably his mother’s.
I whirled around just in time to see Dylan slipping a bright orange pill into Luisa’s palm.
“Hand it over,” I said, holding out my palm.
“It’s just a tic-tac,” Luisa protested glibly. Obviously this line had worked before.
“I said hand it over.”
Luisa was not to be deterred. She popped the pill into her mouth and swallowed.
“Sorry,” she said with a self-satisfied smile. “My breath’s horrid.”
“To the office,” I ordered, hoping I sounded official. “Both of you.”
Dylan started to protest but Luisa’s pleas drowned him out. “You’re sending me to the office for eating a tic-tac?” she whined. “You’re kidding, right?”
The truth was I knew sending them to the office would be a waste of time. But Dylan and Luisa sold to freshmen and, according to what I’d heard, even kids in middle school. I had to try to do something.
I crossed to the other side of the room and picked up the wall phone to inform the office Dylan and
Luisa should be appearing within the next few minutes then headed back to my computer to write up yet another conduct report. Two, to be precise.
Zack was still sitting at his desk. I called out to him but he didn’t appear to hear me, probably because the noise level of the classroom was escalating with every passing second. I clicked open the conduct form and hurriedly began to type. I still needed to set up an overhead projector before B period and now I was going to be late to my next class.
Great. Bad enough I was always late to class in high school but here I was the teacher and I was going to show up after the bell. I couldn’t wait to see the practicum evaluation Harry Miller would send to my professor at the end of the semester. Miller was a good science teacher but he was pretty obsessive when it came to two things—standardized test prep and tardiness to class.
Not for the first time I wondered why I was student teaching biology in a public city school and couldn’t come up with a real answer. If I was honest with myself I’d admit a big part of the reason was that I wanted to take a stand against my adoptive family’s upper-class lifestyle. After my parents were killed during a robbery when I was a kid, one of my dad’s colleagues at Harvard took me in. On the surface it seemed like an ideal solution. I suddenly had a sister the same age as me, two older brothers, and even a golden retriever. My adoptive parents, Edward and Coco Sawyer, were smart and successful and they gave me everything I wanted.
Except love. Not that they had ever come right out and told me they felt differently about their other children. Their real children. They didn’t have to. I felt the difference from the very beginning. I’m a short redhead who burns the minute I set foot on a beach in family of tan, blonde J. Crew catalogue clones who tower over me. But appearance is the least of it.
I’d been really sick before they adopted me but I somehow miraculously recovered. I always wondered if that was the reason I was so unlike the rest of my family. Because there was something inside me that made me want to spend my Saturdays reading fantasy novels instead of playing tennis. When my family was golfing at the ritzy country club they belonged to, I’d take our dog Baxter for a long walk in the woods. And when I graduated from private high school everybody expected me to go to Harvard. My brothers were seniors there and my sister would enter as a freshman in the fall.
For the first time in my life I took a stand and insisted on going the University of Massachusetts. Instead of studying prelaw like my parents wanted me to, I decided to major in biology with a minor in secondary education. I think deep down I hoped my little show of independence might impress them. Maybe even make them respect me more. I was wrong.
“If you’re going to teach, get your doctorate,” Edward told me. “Don’t waste your life policing a bunch of hormonally-charged teenagers from dysfunctional families.”
And here I was. At least until the end of the spring semester, when my practicum ended. Then I’d have another year until I graduated—time to figure out if teaching was really something I wanted to do. Don’t get me wrong. I liked working at Carver, even though I had a hard time getting past the fact that I was only a couple of years older than most of my students. But commitment to a career—or to anything—wasn’t my best quality.
I finished Luisa’s write-up and hit send just as the bell rang. Without a second glance at me, the students shot out of the classroom like horses out of a starting gate. That’s when I noticed Zack hadn’t moved at all. He was still at his desk with his hands folded in front of him, staring up at the television screen.
“Zack?” I asked, aiming the remote at the TV and turning it off. “Are you okay?”
He turned a slightly out-of-focus gaze toward me.
“Yeah, sure,” he said. “I was just interested in that last story.”
I nodded. There was something about his voice. His scent, too. He smelled like fear…..no, not fear, something else. I tried to place the scent but it was one I’d never come in contact with before.
“You’d better get to your next class. You don’t want to be late.”
He grabbed his backpack and flashed me a crooked grin. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
I hurried down the hallway, glancing through my notes before B period started. I would be talking about evolution so I’d prepared a PowerPoint presentation to go along with my lecture. PowerPoint presentations were virtually guaranteed to put everybody to sleep but they always made it easier for me. I hated standing up in front of class with Miller’s eyes locked onto mine. Not to mention twenty-eight more sets.
Well, no. Usually there were only about five. Everybody else was texting or doodling in their notebooks or whispering. Miller kept telling me I had to be more “dynamic” and I hated to admit it but he was right.
The second bell rang and several students rushed through the door ahead of me, nearly pushing me onto the floor in their hurry to reach their seats. Miller gave out detentions for lateness and nobody wanted to hang around the science lab after school.
“You’re late,” Miller said as I crossed the threshold ten seconds after the bell stopped ringing. They pushed me out of the way, I wanted to say. Then I remembered 1) I was supposed to be passing myself off as a responsible adult and 2) I had a quasi-legitimate excuse. “I had to write up a couple of kids.”
“I set the projector up for you.”
“Thanks.” Miller might be a bit obsessive but at heart he was a decent guy.
He lifted a thick manila folder off his desk and smiled wearily. “If you don’t mind I’m going to make my escape,” he said. “I’ve got 57 more tests to get through.”
“No problem,” I said, hoping I didn’t look too relieved. It was tougher to keep kids under control without him in the room but it was also a lot more relaxing to present. “I can handle it.”
As if he were afraid I’d change my mind, Miller clutched the folder to his chest and more or less sprinted out of the room. Turning back toward the class I couldn’t help thinking half of them, if not all of them, wanted to follow him.
“Today’s PowerPoint is on evolution,” I said, forcing a note of enthusiasm into my voice.
No response from most of the class. A few of the girls glanced up from their cell phones. Toward the back, a senior football player groaned. Someone, probably Miller, had already drawn the shades and turned off one set of lights so that the room was dim but not completely dark. I hoped it was enough to hide the heat creeping into my face.
“It’s going to be on tomorrow’s quiz,” I added pointedly.
There was a flurry of notebooks being opened. Of course, the usual suspects didn’t have anything to write with and it took another five minutes until they’d borrowed pencils from their lab partners.
I gave a short spiel about Charles Darwin’s visit to the Galapagos islands then turned off the rest of the lights. I clicked onto the first slide, which was a graph comparing human DNA with the DNA of other animals. “Chimpanzees and Humans have a 98.4 match when it comes to DNA,” I began.
“Humans and gorillas have a 97 percent match.”
Most of the kids were copying down the figures, their pencils moving dutifully across their notebooks. So far so good. Another 20 minutes and half the class would be asleep but for now I had their attention.
“That probably doesn’t surprise most of you because chimps and gorillas look so much like we do—”
One of the football players who had borrowed a pencil raised his hand.
I hesitated. “Yes, Tony?”
“Did you ever see Rise of the Planet of the Apes?”
“Um, yeah. I did.”
“She’s not gonna go to the movies with you, Antonelli,” one of his buddies yelled out. The class burst into laughter. Okay maybe so far not so good.
I took a deep breath and soldiered on. “But when we look at the DNA correlation between humans and wolves we find that it’s close to 96 percent, which is still very high. Humans and wolves might look completely different but if you map the genomes and examine the DNA sequence you’ll find that—
Katie McNally raised her hand. “What’s a genome?”
That threw me. While I was trying to figure out the best way to explain it, Tony’s hand shot up again.
I ignored it. Maybe I was depriving him of his right to an education or something but I just couldn’t deal with him at the moment.
“They made a sequel,” Tony said, not waiting for me to call on him this time.
Several guys in the back of the room started up a conversation comparing the first movie to the second, with somebody else chiming in about how cheesy the original was.
At this point I pretty much wanted to smack myself on the forehead. Meanwhile Katie was staring at me expectantly.
Why don’t you tell them about your own “evolution”?
That would definitely get their attention. Some pretty weird things had been happening to me lately. I’d always had a great sense of smell but two months ago it went into turbo drive. I could smell everything and I mean absolutely everything. Tony, for example, smelled like mango splash body lotion and not because he’d slathered himself up with the stuff. Carly Gillette had brushed past me in the hallway that morning and I knew without a doubt that Tony and Carly had been intimate sometime that morning. Because I wasn’t just smelling mango body lotion. I could smell Tony’s sweat mixed with Carly’s and the mango lotion and the—well, let me just say it all blended together to create one completely unique scent. Sort of like a fingerprint, but not one I wanted to encounter again anytime soon.
It wasn’t just my sense of smell that had gone crazy either. My hearing had gotten so sharp I’d taken to wearing earplugs when I was home. I was staying in Cambridge with my family until my student teaching ended and it was like living in a house without walls. I literally could hear right through them. Even with the movie chat group going full force in Miller’s classroom I could still hear the Screamo song Justin Flanagan was listening to next door on his IPod. Justin always wore an earbud tucked in one ear while he sat with his eyes on the board, pretending to listen while the music blasted. I suppose I should’ve been grateful. If he had been playing the song out loud I think I would’ve interrupted class to destroy his IPod.
There were other weird things, too. Like my appetite. And my restlessness. Suddenly I couldn’t keep still at night. My usual routine was to read until I fell asleep but reading had become impossible. All I wanted to do was pace. Then there were what you might call my carnal desires. I didn’t have a boyfriend and I wasn’t into one-night stands but for the past week I’d been going out of my mind.
Some nights it was all I could not to walk into a club and jump the first hot guy that looked my way. I hadn’t. But my dreams were a different story. I’d been sleepwalking too. Or at least I thought so.
Two nights ago I’d woken up on my parents’ front lawn, drenched in sweat.
“Miss Sawyer?” Selena Cahill’s hand was half way up, like she wasn’t sure if she was stretching or asking a question.
“What!” I didn’t mean to snap at her but every nerve in my body suddenly tensed. I wanted to pace.
No, I needed to pace. Oh, God, please don’t let it start now. So far my “restless” times had been only at night. But who knew what was coming next? My body was changing so fast I couldn’t keep up.
“Dragon lady,” Tony whispered.
Selena swallowed. “I’m sorry to interrupt but the, uh, TV is on.”
I glared at the class. Obviously somebody had gotten hold of the clicker and was determined to drive me completely insane. If they only knew how close I already was.
“Very cute,” I said. “Now whoever’s got the remote turn it off, please.”
Nobody was listening. Or even looking at me. Everybody’s eyes were glued to the screen. Ignoring the queasy feeling in my stomach, I turned to see what they were looking at. I was just in time to see Zack aim an AK-47 at one of the most popular girls in school and blow her brains out.
All at once the entire school was screaming. The sound hurt my ears so badly I felt like my eardrums were splitting open. Cupping my hands over my ears, I raced toward Miller’s desk and grabbed the keys to the classroom.
“Everybody in the corner,” I ordered, locking the door.
Nobody paid any attention.
Despite the fact that CHS had been conducting lock-down drills since September, my students had absolutely no intention of following the rules. I didn’t blame them. Lock-downs never made sense to me. Gather everybody into a corner a wait for a guy with a gun to blow you away. That made about as much sense to me as counting on time travel or fairy dust to save the day.
About half the students were talking frantically into their cell phones. The rest were pouring through the adjoining door to the next classroom. Tony raised one of the shades and lifted his desk over his head, hurling it at the exposed window. It cracked but didn’t break. He lifted the desk again and slammed it against the glass a second time. More spider web cracks but it still hadn’t shattered.
Even if Tony managed to make a hole it might not be big enough for people to get through. Then there was the 30-foot drop to the cement below.
“Sit down on the floor,” I said, lowering my voice. “You’ll be safer if you stay down and keep quiet.”
Through the cracked glass, I could see police cars streaming into the school parking lot. Patrol car after patrol car shot into the lot until it was nothing but a sea of flashing lights and dirty snow bankings. Dozens of officers fanned out and surrounded the building. Somebody was speaking with a megaphone.
“Stay down,” I said to the students who had given up on the window and were huddled in the corner of the room. “We’re going to be okay.”
On TV another student I didn’t know waved twin guns around the classroom he and Zack had taken over. From the number of bodies sprawled across the floor, I guessed that most of the students in the class had already been killed.
Time for them to find another class. My heart hammered in my chest as I tried to remember Zack’s schedule. Could I access it through Miller’s computer? Rushing to his keyboard, I logged in and brought up my homeroom roster. I found his name and clicked on it.
Nothing came up.
I swore under my breath. The little bastard must have wiped out all his records. How long had he planned this day? How often he had watched the students in homeroom and imagined their deaths?
I turned back to the screen and tried to figure out what class he was occupying. It looked like a teacher was lying motionless on the linoleum floor but I couldn’t tell who it was. I was dragging a desk over to the TV so I could climb up and get a better look when Zack and two of his buddies on screen turned and walked toward the classroom door. Their black overcoats flew out behind them as they entered the hallway.
None of it seemed real.
About eight students were huddled in front of the TV, crying and shaking. Even Tony had given up on breaking the glass. When he came over and sat down with the rest of us his eyes were full.
“It’s going to be okay,” I told him, even though I knew it wasn’t going to be okay ever again. It was too late for things to be okay. The best anybody could hope for was that the killings would stop before too many more kids died. From the looks of the weapons Zack and his friends were carrying, that wasn’t going to happen.
I got up off the floor. Selena looked up at me, her eyes wide with terror. “What are you doing?”
“Don’t worry about it.” I crossed to the door and pulled it open a few inches. “Stay where you are.”
“Don’t scream,” I warned, opening the door a few more inches. “They’re looking for another room. Your fear is exactly what they want.”
At that, the huddle of students quieted.
“Why are you opening the door?” Tony asked.
Without answering, I threw the keys to him and stepped out into the hallway, shutting the door behind me. The hallway was empty and my heels clicked loudly as I walked away from the science classroom. Most of the rooms were quiet, probably because students had watched the killers stalk off in search of new victims. Through the locked doors I could hear them whispering tearful goodbyes into cell phones. I could hear their muffled sobs and jagged breathing.
When I reached the end of the hallway I stopped at the top of the stairs. That’s when I caught the scent again—the one I hadn’t been able to recognize earlier that morning.
I understood it better now. It was a mix of anger, hate, frustration, death, fear and exhilaration. The exhilaration was what threw me before. I’d smelled anger and hate and even death, but I’d never encountered it mixed with exhilaration.
Or had I?
Something inside me clicked on. I knew this scent. As I hurried down the stairs toward the social studies corridor I tried to remember when and where I’d come across it before. I couldn’t though. The worst part was that I had the feeling it was connected with something important. Something I needed to remember.
No time to think about that now, I thought as I followed the scent. It was growing stronger, much stronger, so I knew I was getting close. As for what I was going to do once I found the killers, I wasn’t sure.
Am I going die?
The words raced through my head over and over again. I was only 20—too young to die. There was so much I wanted to do, so many questions about my past I’d never found answers to. Why hadn’t I? I wasn’t sure. The only thing I knew for sure was that I wasn’t ready to die. Not yet.
So why was I running down a deserted hallway following the scent of death?
But this was one question I did know the answer to. I had to. It was that simple. There was nobody else who could do what needed to be done to stop the killings. By the time the SWAT teams got to Zack and his friends, more students would be dead. Many more, if my intuition was right. The killers weren’t going down without a big finale that would guarantee them the top spot on the nightly news, not to mention the cover of The Boston Globe, The New York Times and every other newspaper in America. Hell, they had probably even set it up as streaming video on their YouTube accounts.
I stopped running. The scent was strong now, so strong I had to fight the urge to throw up. I leaned against the lockers that ran along the hallway, trying to impose some type of control over my chaotic emotions. I took a deep breath, then another, and counted to ten.
When I had steadied my heart rate I noticed a half-open door about thirty feet down the hall. They were in there, on the other side of that door. They had to be. The scent coming from the room was too strong for them to be anywhere else. I heard screams.
Somebody else was dead.
I started walking slowly toward the door. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there. If I hadn’t spent the past month eating raw steaks and sleepwalking I might have listened to reason and turned around.
I stopped just outside the classroom door, listening. Someone inside was reloading a gun. A girl was whispering, praying. Hail Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among—
“Shut up!” a voice screamed. Zack’s voice.
The girl went on praying.
Another gunshot, followed by more screams. Then an eerie silence broken only by the sound of laughter.
Something deep inside me took over. Not rage, though that’s what started it. In that moment I felt calmer than I’d ever felt in my entire life. I knew what I had to do.
My body tensed and I exploded into the room, running full speed at the boy closest to the door. Lifting him over my head, I hurled him to the other side of the room and watched him crash into the cinder-block wall.
From the way his head hit the cement I knew I’d knocked him out cold. His gun flew out of his hand and several male students surrounded him, holding him down in case he woke up. Despite the fact that I was five foot four in heels, the second boy decided not to mess with me. He sprinted out of the classroom and ran down the hallway. I heard him fly down two flights of stairs, straight into the arms of a waiting SWAT team member.
From where I stood in the classroom, I could hear him complaining they were hurting him. I heard him burst into tears as he tried to explain the other boys made him do it. When that didn’t work he said he wanted to talk with his lawyer. A few seconds later I heard the sound of running footsteps.
The SWAT team was running away from us, not toward us.
He had pointed them in the wrong direction. And they’d bought it.
Inside the classroom, nobody moved. None of them could hear what was going on outside but they weren’t about to bother me. Or Zack.
When I focused on the room again the first thing I saw was the AK-47 aimed straight at my heart. Unlike his friends, Zack didn’t seemed fazed by me at all. The whole episode seemed to please him somehow. A slow smile lit his face. “You just kicked some major ass, Ms. Sawyer,” he said respectfully. “Ever play Death Blow?”
“Not until today.”
I considered moving closer to Zack but changed my mind. He wasn’t scared of me at all but he would shoot if I gave him the slightest reason to. What had led him to the point where slaughtering his classmates was the same as playing a video game?
From the back of the room, a girl whimpered.
Zack looked over his shoulder at her but kept the gun pointed at me.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP OR I’LL BLOW YOUR FUCKIN’ HEAD OFF!”
The girl quieted, but I wasn’t sure how long her silence would last. She looked hysterical, on the verge of a complete meltdown.
“Somebody go sit with her,” I said. Dutifully, another girl got up from her spot on the floor and went over to her.
Zack’s eyebrows shot up, as if he couldn’t believe I’d had the nerve to interfere. “You don’t actually think you’re gonna stop this?”
“Give me the gun, Zack.”
“Give me the gun, Zack?” he repeated. “Is that the best you’ve got?”
“I’m afraid so.”
I took a step toward him.
“Oooh,” Zack said, “Don’t come any closer. You’re scaring me.”
I took another step.
“Give me the gun, Zack.”
If Zack was disturbed by the fact that I was now less than five or six feet away from him, he didn’t show it. He was too busy trying and failing to imagine a line that wasn’t stock footage in every thriller he’d ever seen.
I never understood what happened next. The girl started whimpering again, softly, but it was enough to push Zack over the edge. Zack turned the gun on her and before I knew what I was doing I leapt into the air and knocked him to the floor.
The gun went off and a bullet shattered the fluorescent light just above us. Broken glass rained down onto the two of us as we struggled.
As I tried to grab the gun out of Zack’s hand, I could hear the SWAT team on the floor below us.
They had heard the gunshot. Still, there was no time. It would take them too long to get the classroom.
I felt the butt of the AK-47 smash into the side of my head. Searing pain shot through me. Instinctively, I raised my hand to the spot where the gun had made contact.
Zack grabbed my wrist and climbed on top of me, using his weight to keep me pinned. He hit me on the side of the head again, aiming for the same spot. I winced at the blow and tears stung my eyes. Behind us, the few students left alive scrambled past us and disappeared into the hallway.
A rush of relief flood my brain. They were safe. No matter what happened to me, they were going to be okay. Which was more than I could say for myself. The AK-47 smashed into the side of my head again in the same spot. I cried out.
“You’re going to regret this, Zack.”
He laughed and hit me a third time with the gun.
I tried to speak his name but when it came out it didn’t sound like a word at all. Instead of my own voice I heard a low growl. A warning.
Zack stopped hitting me, his gun suspended in mid-air. His eyes grew wide.
Something was happening to me.
I tried to speak again but couldn’t. The next thing I knew I was on all fours. I bared my fangs at Zack and growled. I could feel my fur standing on end.
“Jesus,” he whispered. “What the hell are you?” .
I sprang then, knocking him to the ground. I took his flesh in my mouth and the gun clattered to the floor. Warm blood gushed out of a six-inch hole in Zack’s left arm, wetting my fur and soaking through his dark overcoat.
Zack screamed so loudly the windows shook. His high-pitched moans ricocheted off the walls.
The sound was incredibly painful to me. Unbearable.
I heard footsteps running toward us. Smelled guns and sweat and fear and courage.
Trapped beneath my bared claws, Zack almost looked relieved. I leapt off him soundlessly and rushed out of the room just as the SWAT team appeared.
“Was that a wolf?” one asked as I sped past him.
“Where the hell did it come from?” asked another.
The linoleum floor was slick and I tried not to slip as I ran. A backward glance told me three of the
SWAT team members were closing in. One of them stopped and raised his gun, leveling its barrel at my head.
At the end of the hallway, a red EXIT sign glowed.
I rushed toward the sign, toward freedom. As I gained speed the metal door rose up before me. I hurled myself against it and felt it give way.
The sky above me shone electric blue. Everything seemed brighter, sharper, as if I were caught in a
Technicolor movie. I plunged through the scattered crowd of police officers and disappeared into the woods, snow crunching beneath my paws.
The shadows of the trees closed in around me. Further ahead, a shaft of light broke through the gloom and showed me the way. I ran toward it with superhuman speed, knowing I was leaving behind everything I’d ever known.