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Jason's Mate
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Chapter One:  Jason

“Why don’t you shift?”
The question comes from Rick, a shifter who’s in for murder. He’s told me the story of his crime a few times and I just tune him out. He seems way too happy about it. He reminds me uncomfortably of me and I’m in no mood. I don’t even want to be around me anymore. So I usually tune out Rick. Except that now he’s right up on the bars between our cells (there’s no real privacy at the Mulligan) and staring at me, and I know he’s not going to leave me alone until I talk to him.
I’m really sick of Rick.
He’s been shifted all day, pacing in his cage, and now it appears he’s shifted back just to bother me.
“Didn’t feel like it,” I mutter. I’m sitting up against the back wall in the corner. That’s my usual spot.
“Yeah, but you never shift.” Rick is glaring at me like this is a problem and awhile ago I would have agreed that it’s a problem. I should be a wolf for as long as it’s possible to be a wolf because that’s being a “real” shifter.
I haven’t felt like that in a while.
“Will you just shut the fuck up, man?” I say to Rick. “I’m just tryin’ to serve my time like anybody else.”
The Mulligan is what we shifters call the shifter prison for this region of the country up in the Pacific Northwest. It’s not very big even though it covers so much territory because shifters don’t often get sent to prison. Most crimes or offenses against other shifters are handled within the pack. I have to think Rick’s murder was particularly heinous to get him sent here. Or maybe he murdered somebody from a different pack. That can get you sent to the Mulligan, depending. Or you can be like me; part of a pack that declared war on a pack in a totally different clan. All the guys like me who were dumb enough to think our alpha, Dax, would be our messiah got sent to the Mulligan when they were caught. That’s what we got for attacking a Tremblay and messing with one of our former wolves who turned out to be Micah Tremblay’s mate. Except me and my buddy Kyle weren’t caught right away. We had to go taking my little sister prisoner first. The thing is, it all made sense to me at the time. I was a true believer. I wanted to live like a “real” shifter and I believed this was how to do it. I was going to start up a new and better pack with my buddy and the only family I had left. Now I look back on that asshole kid I used to be and I wish Xander Tremblay had caught me and killed me. But he didn’t. I’m not that lucky. Instead I’m sitting here in a cell with just enough space to drive a wolf out of his mind. There’s no place to run and there’s no place to hunt. For a wolf like me who was taught that his true self is a wolf, it’s pretty much torture. I don’t know why Rick thinks it’s better to stay shifted in the cell. It drives me out of my goddamn mind. Most of the time, I just sit around staying human. Being a wolf hurts too much. And if I’m honest, it reminds me too much of who I’ve been for too long and all the mistakes I’ve made.
“Such a prick, Jason,” Rick says, cackling.
For some reason, Rick really wants to be my friend. I wish he’d just shut the hell up and let me serve my time in peace.
My cell is about eight feet by eight feet just like everyone else’s. Sometimes I do push-ups and there’s a bar coming down from the ceiling that’s good for pull-ups. It would also be good for hanging if I had a belt or something but that’s really not my style. I’ve heard it’s happened here before though. The reason shifters don’t get sent to the Mulligan very often is because wolves sitting in cells all day can drive them not so slowly out of their minds, sometimes irreparably. It’s a kind of last resort. Which means I really fucked up. For the last couple years, since the last time I managed an escape, that’s all I’ve been able to think about.
“You ever talk to Didion’s guys?” Rick says.
“Fuck no,” I say, rubbing my eyes. “I don’t even want to talk to you.”
“Wish I could’ve been there when they took on those Tremblay assholes,” Rick says, cackling.
“Why?” I say with a snort. “They got clobbered, idiot.”
“Still, they must’ve given em’ a fight,” Rick mutters.
I roll my eyes. I have an urge to bang my head against the wall and yet Rick sounds a lot like I used to.
You’re scared. My sister Alice’s voice rings in my head. The last time I talked to her, I came away feeling somebody had stripped my skin off. You’re terrified.
Somehow, my little sister, who I’ve always managed to keep in line with not much more than a threatening look tore me into pieces just by telling me the truth. It was a while back. I hadn’t been in the Mulligan long. Mason Tremblay was looking after Alice and she was working in some bookstore, like a real assimilated shifter. I remember feeling so desperate to see her. I told myself it was just sticking to the plan, starting up a new pack. I told myself I was following the rules I’d been brought up with since I was a pup, to keep the pack in line. Except there was no pack left, and the truth was, we’d destroyed ourselves. I had nothing left, and it was all my fault. All there was left was Alice.
They hurt you just like they hurt me.
The last time I saw my sister, she spoke all my darkest thoughts aloud, and I left with my tail between my legs. But I don’t talk about that. I guess I don’t talk about anything most of the time. I just serve my sentence; one day after the other. The thing is, I don’t really mind the Mulligan. I don’t even like to think about getting out of it anymore since they caught me after that last escape when I went to find Alice. When I’m here, I don’t have to think about what to do or how to fix anything. All I have to think about is how I messed up so badly and became the wrong kind of wolf,  the wrong kind of man and the awful things I’ve done. Which isn’t ideal. But I’ve gotten pretty used to it. At the Mulligan, it’s just me and my regret.
“You ever gonna try escaping again, Jason?” Rick says.
“Why not?” Rick says, laughing. “You’re good at it. Escaped twice like it was easy peasy.”
“Because I got nowhere to go, Rick,” I say, staring up at the dirty ceiling. “I got nowhere to go and nobody to see so what’s the point of escaping? Now will you shut the fuck up before I reach through these bars and tear your goddamn face off?”
“Alright, alright,” Rick says. “Christ. No need to get your panties in a twist.”
I once put a gun to my sister’s head to make her come with me and my buddy so I could start that new Hardwidge pack. I was going to force her to be Kyle’s mate whether she wanted to or not because I believed that was being a good shifter. Now when I look back all I see is a brainwashed kicked dog trying to be an alpha and hurting the only family he has left in order to do it.  And yet, I can’t just blame the way I was taught and grew up. Took me about a year to realize that. I made my own choices. I decided to hurt Alice. I kidnapped her and beat her and kept her hostage in a cave and scared her nearly out of her mind. I did that. The only reason she got away from me is because of those Tremblays.
Honestly, they should never let me out of the Mulligan.
It’s all I deserve.
Unfortunately, sentences do come to an end and I could potentially get an early release soon. There’s a chance they will let me out. I’ve only been here a couple years, but I’ve gotten used to this life. And more than that, I’ll probably be sent off without a pack. I’ll be a lone wolf and have to figure out how to live outside a collective. Or I’ll have to go find a pack myself that would take me, which is doubtful. I have no idea how I’d get by on the outside, if I’m honest with myself.
Luckily, people who mess with the Tremblays don’t do so great with early release.
I’m guessing they’re not going to let me out any time soon.
The two weeks before my hearing go way too fast. I think I’m the only guy here that doesn’t actually want to get out of prison. I sit there in a cheap, plastic chair and stare down at the table as Mason Tremblay talks about what a shitty human being I am. I can only agree. But I don’t say that. I don’t say much of anything. I’m mostly grateful that Alice didn’t come to this thing. A lot of my time is spent dreading ever seeing her again. I don’t know what I would say to her. I guess that makes me a coward on top of everything else.
“In summary, no I don’t believe this man should be released,” Mason says. He’s so calm. You wouldn’t know I’d kidnapped his mate. But Mason is known to be that way from what I’ve heard. I don’t look at him. I’m staring at the scratches in this table top. I picture other assholes like me, sitting here and waiting to hear their sentence or waiting to hear if they will be let out. I wonder if any of them have been like me, hoping they don’t get out.
“Will the prisoner rise?” Elroy Finch is presiding because he always adjudicates these things. My hearing isn’t well attended which makes sense, I guess. I’m not a big priority at all. It’s probably only Alice and the Tremblays who care whether I get out or not.
I get to my feet and force myself to turn a little and look at Mason Tremblay who’s standing diagonally behind me. He’s staring daggers at me. I’ve never seen anybody looks so calm yet murderous. I want to tell him I’m sorry. I want to tell him to tell Alice I’m sorry. But I don’t think I deserve to ask. How do you say sorry for something like what I did? It’s not something that can be made up for. I have to just live with it and keep doing my time and feel like I’ve felt since that night I saw Alice for the last time and she told me I was nothing but scared and alone. There’s no making up for this. Not ever.
“Jason,” Finch says. “Do you have anything to say about the possibility of being released? Do you feel remorse?”
I hate this question. I knew it was coming, but I don’t know how to answer it. All I feel every day is remorse but there’s nothing I can say that even begins to express how much I wish I’d done things differently and how much I wish I hadn’t caused my sister so much pain the way I did. I wish I’d realized that everything I was taught by the Hardwidge pack was bullshit and it all messed me up so much that the only way I knew to deal with it was to dole out some more pain to the person I should’ve been protecting…
All those thoughts are racing through my head. I can feel them in my throat and it makes me choke. I feel myself start to shake and I clench my fists where they’re shackled.
The irony is that if I do say I’m remorseful, they’ll let me out. But I don’t want to be let out. I should tell them I’d do it again or something stupid like that. But I can’t get those words out. They’ll choke me.
“I…” I take a deep breath. I feel the weight of everything I’ve done on my shoulders. I feel it wrapping around my neck and choking me. A lot of times I wish the Tremblays had just killed me.
“Jason?” Finch says.
I shut my mouth and shake my head. I don’t have to say anything. My eyes are watery and I clear my throat, willing them away.
You don’t deserve to cry, you piece of shit, I think to myself. I clear my throat again and stand up straight, head held high. I try to look blank and pretend I was not just quivering like a scared little kid.
“I got nothing to say.” I take another breath and stare straight ahead at the wall. There’s a murmuring in the courtroom.
There’s no way they’ll let me out now.
“I’m disappointed,” Finch says, “in your refusal to speak for yourself. But I have some things I’d like to put on the record here.” Finch clears his throat. He runs these things kind of casually. Now he takes out a folder full of papers and puts on a pair of reading glasses. “You are noted as behaving like a model prisoner since your second escape which was two years ago and which you did seem to show remorse for. You are also noted as having attempted to dissuade fellow prisoners from their escape to join Jack Didion in their attack on the Tremblays-”
I choke up a little bit and cover with a cough. I feel my cheeks burn and I feel Mason Tremblay’s eyes on me. I’d sort of forgotten about that. But when a whole bunch of prisoners busted out of here a while back to go declare war on the Tremblays, I did kind of try to talk them out of it. Mainly because it was the kind of  dumbass thing I would have tried and look where all that got me. But I really didn’t do much. I just talked to a couple guys like Kyle. I don’t know how Finch knows about that. I guess he must have interviewed them.
Finch stops talking and peers over his glasses at me and I feel like a bug under a microscope.
“Do you deny any of this, Jason?” He says.
“Don’t let me out,” I say, sputtering a little bit. Mason Tremblay is frowning at me and I hear a rumbling among the few other attendees in the room. “Don’t let me out. I don’t deserve it. I don’t want to be let out.”
Finch gives me a long look and I don’t meet his eyes. I can’t. “You are very sorry for what you did,” he says slowly. “You’re so sorry, you can’t even stand to be with yourself. Can you?”
I feel like I’m going to be sick.
You’re scared, Alice said. You’re terrified.
I don’t say anything to that. I don’t know what to say.
“I’m releasing you,” Finch says.
I would think Mason Tremblay would put up a fuss. But he’s just staring at me like he doesn’t even have a problem with this.
“I will ask you this,” Finch says. “Do you wish to be assigned to a new pack?”
“No,” I say quickly. “I’d...I’d prefer exile.”
Finch seems a little bothered by that. Call it self-inflicted punishment. I don’t have any idea how to live as a shifter without a pack but I know that I definitely don’t deserve one. I’d probably just poison whatever pack they assigned to me. I shouldn’t even be around people… I’m briefly considering pulling some kind of stunt that would put me back in a cell. I could attack somebody right here and now as they lead me out. I could attack Finch? I’ve been swearing to myself I wouldn't hurt anyone again who didn’t deserve it but if it kept me in here, it might be for the greater good-
“Very well,” Finch is saying, before I can make up my mind. “You will be released into exile as a lone wolf. If you change your mind at some point and decide to join a pack, you may do so-”
“I won’t,” I mumble. I can’t believe this is happening. I actually wanted to stay in prison and they’re letting me out.
Son of a bitch.

Chapter Two:  Jason

When they release me from the Mulligan, they give me forty dollars and the clothes I came in with. There are no extended goodbyes and I don’t offer any. I don’t even say goodbye to Rick who I’ve been living next to for the last year. I never tried to make friends at the Mulligan. Then again, I don’t know that I have any idea how that works. At Hardwidge, we were all just kind of thrown together. I wouldn’t say I was friends with anyone there. We worked together as a pack against any enemies and the rest of the time it was wolf versus wolf. I had my buddy, Kyle. But honestly, he wasn’t much of a friend. He was just weaker than me and latched onto me because that’s what the weaker wolves do in a big pack; latch onto the stronger wolves.
It’s a cold, grey day in Washington. The Mulligan sits south of Seattle, not too far from Portland. When I get out, I stand there on the street in the middle of the town of Castle Rock where the Mulligan hides away. My stomach rumbles. I was so freaked out about my release all night that I didn’t sleep and I couldn’t eat dinner. Didn’t feel much like eating breakfast either. So I guess a little chunk of this forty bucks will go to a meal since I’m an ass hat who couldn’t make myself eat before they got rid of me. There’s not much here though. The Mulligan is in a kind of industrial area. All the buildings are squat cement blocks, maybe manufacturers or offices or something. Anyway, I don’t see anyplace to get cheap food and I don’t even see any place to get some shelter and compose myself. Finch met up with me on my way out. He directed me to the bus stop just like he does all the prisoners who get out, and gave me a couple tokens.
I got no plan, forty bucks, and I’ve never lived among humans.
I’ll probably be dead in a week.
On impulse, I cross the street and find the bus stop for a line heading north. Hardwidge was based in Oregon. I don’t want any part of it even though my old pack is done. I just don’t want to risk even running into any shifters who know me or know where I come from, much less what I’ve done. And I definitely need to get out of Washington.
The next few days are a kind of blur. I get on the bus going north and ride it as far as it goes, which isn’t that far and is also uncomfortably close to Quinton. So I just start walking north and away from Quinton. The last thing I need is to run into somebody who knows Alice or the Tremblays or has anything to do with them and God forbid, knows who I am.
It’s not so bad, the walking. I buy myself the cheapest crap I can find to eat at gas stations. The only reason I go to gas stations is, I’m sort of used to them. Growing up at Hardwidge, sometimes we’d walk down into town and buy a treat at the gas station because it was the closest place and once in a blue moon, we’d go to McDonald’s. I pass more than one of those McDonald’s as I’m walking and my mouth waters but it feels like a waste of money. Instead I go for cheap trail mix because I can carry it easily. In Lynwood, just outside Quinton, I realize I’m going to need to shift and live as a wolf for a while.
I haven’t shifted in a long time. I haven’t shifted in months. It doesn’t make any sense, I guess, because I was raised to believe that true shifters should live like wolves as much as possible. But I guess I haven’t felt like a true shifter in a long time. Or anyway, I don’t even know what that means anymore. I feel as if I was lied to, made to be somebody else, and I went along with it.  I don’t want to be that person anymore. But if I’m not that person, then who the hell am I? It makes me feel apart from my wolf in a way, so I haven’t shifted. I feel as if my wolf and I are strangers now.
On the other hand, it would be a lot easier to live like a wolf for a while. If only to get far away.
I head toward some woods one cold night and I delve in. The cold, crisp air is comforting. It’s been so long since I’ve been outside in the wild. If I kept going into Quinton and up into the mountains there, I’d find that place where I kept Alice in that cave… I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s the last place I want to see and yet… I feel as if I have to make myself see it.
In the woods, I sit down in the dirt, staring for awhile. I need to shift and hunt. I know I do. I feel like my wolf is ashamed of me, is what it is. It’s a terrifying thought.
“Pathetic piece of shit,” I mutter to myself.
In the dirt, I see a little glimmer and I squint, and dig around the shiny thing stuck there in the mud. It’s a broken fragment of a mirror and I hold it up now, seeing myself under the moonlight here in the dim woods.
I haven’t looked at myself in a mirror since probably the last time I escaped and even then it was a shitty, dirty gas station bathroom mirror. But this piece of mirror is oddly shiny and clean for sticking up out of the mud and the moonlight is bright when I look at myself.
I hardly recognize the man I see in the mirror. He’s thinner, and he looks about ten years older than I remember. I was always considered a pretty good-looking guy back at Hardwidge. I have a good to pretty good muscular built. Or I did. Now I’m more wiry than muscular. My brown hair seems darker than it was, all grown out and long, nearly touching my shoulders. My face is gaunt, my brown eyes haunted. My once handsomely sharp jawline now looks too sharp, almost skeletal. I have new lines around my mouth.
I’m twenty-eight years old.
I swear I look forty but maybe it’s the mood I’m in that’s making me see this old man in the mirror; this weathered old asshole full of ghosts and regret. I don’t want to look at him anymore and I toss the mirror away.
It’s time to shift. I can’t avoid this anymore. I feel like my wolf is curled up in the corner, ignoring me. It’s a weird way to feel. I’m used to my wolf being riled up and ready to fight at a moment’s notice. Maybe I’m not apart from my wolf at all. Wouldn’t he be just like me and wouldn’t that make sense? My wolf feels he doesn’t deserve to run. Well, maybe I agree but this is a matter of survival.
It takes me a few minutes. I have to coax him out. My wolf isn’t the snarling, growling warrior I always fancied him to me. Not anymore anyway. Now he’s got his tail between his legs, his head ducked down. I shift slowly and painfully and it takes some concentration, but eventually he comes out.
I take some time to get him used to the woods, since it’s been so long since I shifted. I pace around, sniffing and getting my bearings. I don’t smell any other shifters or threats nearby, thank God. The last thing I want to do right now is stumble into some fight over territory. I just need to hunt and get some meat in my stomach and then I’ll be on my way. As a wolf I’ll be able to run for much longer without a break and sleep in the woods. It’ll save me a lot of money even if it will take a while to get out of Washington state.
I stretch my legs and urinate and then I start trotting around, sniffing for prey. I let myself run finally and I admit, it’s the best I’ve felt in a few years. I don’t remember a run ever feeling so good and it makes me realize how shitty I felt before. I’ve been on the edge of real fatigue and sickness keeping my wolf back. Now I stretch my legs and feel the cold air in my fur and it all comes back to me; the thrill of a good hunt and a good run. It’s a fulfilling kind of satisfaction that I can’t find anywhere else.
I kill a deer and eat well and then I trot around for a bit before full out running through most of the night with some breaks in between. It’s tiring but in a good way that I haven’t been tired in a long time. I focus on my run and on my direction and on scent. There’s plenty to keep my mind occupied which is good because I’m so fucking tired of thinking about myself and what I did. It’s all I think about all day. If it’s not that, it’s memories of Hardwidge and not all of those memories are good. Now I just concentrate on putting miles between myself and Mulligan and Quinton. But when I come up on that mountain…
I think about just running by. The last thing in this whole world I want to see is that cave and those woods. Which makes me think I need to. Finch let me out because he thought I was truly remorseful. I guess I am. But that doesn’t mean I deserve to avoid my past. So I grit my teeth and run my ass up that mountain to the cave where I kept my sister and where I beat her when she wouldn’t be quiet or when she tried to run off. Because that’s what Hardwidge shifters do.
When I get there to the clearing where Kyle and I would sit and talk about the pack we would build together, it all comes rushing back. I can see Alice, whimpering and afraid. I remember how completely convinced I was that I was doing the right thing to preserve the Hardwidge way of life which I absolutely believe should be the way of life for all shifters whether they want it that way or not. It’s getting toward winter and it’s bitterly cold up here now but my fur is keeping me warm enough as I trot over to the cave.
The rope is still there.
I can see her there like a ghost; Alice tied up in the cave. I should have protected her…
I can hear the echo of my knuckles backhanding her because she talked back. I can see her tears. She was hungry and cold and she was so scared… I remember her getting like that when she was young back at Hardwidge, when she had trouble hunting or she couldn’t shift. I’d make fun of her. I’d try to give her tough love and show her how to hunt or make her fight for some of my meat. I thought that was the way to be because that’s what was done to me. But it doesn’t excuse anything. All my fear and regret lurches up in my stomach and I retch there, in the sharp, cold of the wood. I throw up again some of the meat I just ate.
It’s going to be a long winter.
It takes me a little time to get back into the habit of living as a wolf but soon enough I’m catching dinner on the regular and I’ve made it pretty far from Quinton.
In a few weeks, I’m in Canada.
I still don’t have a plan and sooner or later I’m going to have to stop going north. I don’t much fancy living in Vancouver. But then it occurs to me: Alaska. Alaska seems like where I’ve really been heading. I wasn’t consciously thinking of it, but it makes sense. I have to get out of the Pacific Northwest. Alaska is good for shifters. There’s enough space to find a place of your own without stumbling into a fight over territory (I hope so anyway). I just gotta be careful once I get there and figure out the lay of the land.
It’s going to take me forever, of course.
I’m thinking about this one day in Vancouver. I like to run sure, but running all the way to Alaska seems like a nightmare. I’ll do it, of course. Maybe such an arduous and long run would do me some good. It’s gonna be rough though in this cold and we’re heading into November. It’s not going to get warmer any time soon. I’m trotting along the highway in the bitter cold, thinking about it, when I finally notice the big trucks going by.
Big trucks...heading north. Oh.
I’ve never hitchhiked before but I’ve heard about it. I wouldn’t be too worried about safety. God knows I can take care of myself. At worst, I’ll get in a scrap but it would be worth it if I could skip some of this long run, especially around areas where food is scarce.
I’m on a long stretch of highway with woods on both sides. The night before was pretty good. I went into the woods and ate some elk and had a good sleep once I was able to find a warm spot. Now would be a good time. I’m lucky nobody’s paying me any mind. I’m not sure how common it is to see a wolf on the highway in Vancouver but if trouble comes or a car swerves, I can hop over the wall and jump into the woods. I pick up speed and run down a highway, intending to get to a good turn off where I can pick up a ride. A wolf walking down a highway is definitely a bad sign.
It takes me to that evening and I end up walking in human form for a couple miles. I don’t know how humans do anything when they can’t just shift into something more convenient. After two miles I feel like I’m going to freeze to death but then the jacket I left the Mulligan with is from warmer weather and I don’t have the money yet to buy something better for living as a human.
“Where to?” I ask the trucker. The trucker is an older guy with a big gray beard and not lacking in muscle. He looks like he’s not afraid of sketchy hitchhikers.
“Goin’ to Anchorage,” he says around a fat cigar.
“That’s perfect,” I say, nodding, I realize I’m still catching my breath as I stand there on the road in front of yet another gas station. My ears are freezing. My whole face almost feels numb with cold. My fingers are going numb too. I squint up at the trucker way up high in the cab of his eighteen-wheeler. “Can I ride with you?”
“Sure,” he says, shrugging. “I’m bored. Hop in.”
I climb into the cab and almost immediately I start to think I’ve picked the wrong truck. It’s not because the guy is scary, it’s because the guy is not scary. The guy, by the way, is named Cal. Cal is from St. Louis. Cal has two kids and an ex-wife. Cal does not stop talking. He doesn’t need much from me in the way of encouragement to keep talking. In fact, I don’t say much at all as Cal drives on. At first, I’m pretty annoyed. Then Cal’s voice just becomes a kind of background hum along with the 70’s rock softy playing on the radio. I dip in and out of paying attention and sometimes it’s almost entertaining. He tells me all about his divorce. She cheated on him with their accountant.
The drive from Vancouver to Anchorage, even considering the incredible time Cal is making, takes days. I get to know Cal pretty well. The truck has two beds. We stop for food every once in a while and it’s a little awkward when my stomach rumbles but I only order whatever’s cheapest on the menu. Cal spots me fries. On the third day, I finally ask Cal why he’s letting me come along all the way to Anchorage and buying me food (which I definitely don’t deserve).
Cal tells me these drives get incredibly lonely and also he believes in God and God would want him to help me. Then Cal talks about God for the entire rest of the ride. By the time we get to Anchorage, I know all about his church. His human religion. It doesn’t have anything to do with shifters. I don’t really have an opinion on it but apparently if I’m ever in St. Louis I’m supposed to stop by the First Baptist Church on Holland St. and stop by his house for supper.
So I got that going for me.
When I step out of the cab in Anchorage, after hours and hours on the road without a break, I feel like my wolf is about to bust right out of me whether I want him to or not.
“Thanks for the ride, Cal,” I say, nodding up at him.
I rode with the guy for about four days and somehow managed to say almost nothing about myself or where I come from. Cal didn’t seem to mind. I hope everyone else is like that.
“Good luck, Jason,” Cal says winking at me as I step down to the street.
And then there I am in Anchorage. I still have no plan except to find a spot that feels right, I guess.
That night, I walk around Anchorage, trying to get a feel for it. It’s near enough to a place to run but it doesn’t feel right. It’s still too big, too much of a city. I barely know how to navigate the human world to begin with, much less how to figure out cities. I end up running again.
I run around for a day just looking for the right spot and that’s how I finally end up walking from a state park on and on until I get to a tiny fishing town on the peninsula called Grayling.
Grayling doesn’t look like much but it’s just a few miles from the woods and it would be easy to run back and forth shifted and not be seen. The town is right on the water and there’s not much to it; bait shops, a couple dive bars, general goods stores, a diner, a few offices, and a bunch of crappy looking housing. It’s not nearly as picturesque as the other Alaska towns I passed on my way here. But I kind of like that about it. It’s small and gray and it’s not crowded. I kind of like the water even though I’ve never lived near it. I go on a run in the woods nearby and then I walk around the town and get a feel. The docks are busy with men hauling in nets of fish. Everyone looks kind of cold and dour but also like they’re not going to pay you any mind and that appeals to me.
I also smell shifters. I smell them everywhere and they must smell me too but they’re not looking at me twice.
It’s tricky because the last thing I want to do is get on the wrong side of the tracks but I don’t get humans and if I’m brutally honest with myself, I’m scared of them. It would be good to be around shifters and I have to think a place like this must have more than one lone wolf around already. Maybe they won’t mind me. It’s worth trying, anyway. At worst, I’ll get into a fight or whatever. Then, I can leave again.
I’ve got fifteen dollars in my pocket now and I’m shuddering from the cold. I’m going to have to shift tonight but I think I’m going to have to figure out how to live like a more assimilated type of shifter. It’s the opposite of everything I was taught at Hardwidge but then, look how Hardwidge turned out.
I think about this as I walk down Grayling’s main drag which is all of five blocks. There’s a dive bar on the end of it. I haven’t had much alcohol in my life. Sometimes after a fight, we’d find some booze and knock a few back, me and my pup friends. But it was  considered a human kind of thing. It’s supposed to make you feel good though, or at least make you feel numb. If I had some money, I’d buy myself a drink. But it’s the sign on the door of the bar that says Casey’s that makes me raise an eyebrow.
I’m pretty sure that means they got a job opening.
Just so happens, I’m desperate for a job.
If I can just pass myself off as somebody who wasn’t raised practically feral, I might get it.
And hopefully, everyone in a place like this can leave me the hell alone.

Chapter Three:  Carrie

I’m still sore from the last fight and nine hours of working on my feet at the diner didn’t help my sore leg. Shifters heal up quickly, sure. But there are limits. Three or four nights of brutal fights can be a lot to heal up from depending on how the fight goes. But I’ve toughened up a lot over the years. Besides that, if I fight tonight, it’s a triple pot which  means if I win I’ll get a decent take. Which for me means, any take at all.
The diner in Grayling is on the main drag across from a line of bait and gear shops and about a half mile from the house I rent with Pop and Laney. The benefit, I guess, of living in a miniscule town in the middle of nowhere is that I can walk most places. I’m never late for anything anyway. When I get off work, I throw my coat on over my uniform and pick up my duffle bag to make my way to the gym at The Ring. Now it’s time to work another several hours on top of waitressing, and that includes training to fight. These young pups come in, actually wanting to fight in the ring and they think it’s going to be so easy. Fight a couple times a night and clean up, no problem. They think they don’t need to train in human form because they’re shifters, as if one body doesn’t affect the other. I take the time to train until I feel like I’m about to die and it makes a huge difference. I should know, I’m the best fighter The Ring has right now.
The evening is already looking gray and grim with winter setting in but the light coming from the boats on the docks and reflecting off  the water always look pretty and the fog across the peninsula is rolling around in a gray-green mist. I take a deep breath as I trudge my way block after block to The Ring, nodding hello to the same old townsfolk I’ve seen here since birth. Here and there a wolf, trots on by.
There are hardly any humans living in Grayling at all. We’re a shifter town. The humans that do live here know but they don’t tell anything to anybody because the kind of humans who live in Grayling are happy to live somewhere they can mind their own business. Grayling isn’t what you’d call a friendly type of town. Maybe that’s because we’re all wolves, and maybe that’s because of our alpha. Hard to say. But then, I’ve always lived here and I hardly remember life before Remmy was the alpha, so what do I know?
The real training for the ring is up in the woods, or anyway it should be. But I don’t get much time to go up there and spar and other fighters hang out at the ring so that’s where we go.
The Ring is a little cement block of a building. It’s a bar when you walk in but that’s just the front really. I nod at Gary behind the bar and take the wide flight of stairs in the backroom down two flights to where all the action happens.
The “ring” itself is a huge fighting platform under a wire cage with two latched gates, one on each side. It sits in the middle of the round amphitheatre bleachers. Four nights a week there are fights in The Ring. The place is often crowded with observers who watch the shifters fight just for fun and spend money on drinks and the admission which is just a couple bucks. But that’s not where Remmy is making his money. The money is in the betting. The big money is in the high rollers who come in from out of town to watch the fights. But plenty of other poor chumps have made themselves indebted to Remmy when they shouldn’t have. One of those very chumps is my father.
That’s why I have to fight.
Right now there’s no fight going on but there are always people down here, even if there’s just Remmy’s little henchmen. Right now there’s a group of guys at a table in the corner doing whatever it is Remmy’s little henchmen do all day. They’re probably looking in a book to see who owes Remmy money or counting money or something along those lines. There’s a wide berth between two sets of bleachers where a garage type door opens up into another huge room with gym equipment and weights and a track around it for running. All the amenities for Remmy’s fighters. But there are other hidden places underground around The Ring too. There are cells and places where people scream if they get out of line or if they can’t make up their debt to Remmy. But hey, he’s the alpha. Who are we to complain?
We just live here.
The guys nod at me. I’ve been fighting in The Ring pretty regularly for about a year, because my dad got himself deep in debt with Remmy and couldn’t begin to pay him back. Lucky for him, he had a strong healthy daughter who’s tough as nails and good in a fight.
I actually look more imposing when I’m not shifted. Or at least when I’m trying to look imposing. I’m tall and I have good muscle tone, especially since I started fighting. I’ve thrown off more than one regular old human asshole who tried to corner me in an alley and I’m not easily intimidated. As a wolf, I look just like any other female wolf, but I’m fast and I’m brutal. That’s because, I have to be. These fights are completely meaningless. They’re fought just so that people can make money, but I fight to get my dad and my baby sister out of Remmy’s clutches. How long that will actually take is anybody’s guess. It’s not as if Remmy has the most integrity in the world. He could keep me fighting until I get killed or I can’t function as a fighter anymore and claim it’s all to pay off my dad’s debt and most days, I assume that’s how things are going to go. But it’s still better than him killing my dad or hurting my baby sister. I wouldn’t put much past Remmy.
“Hey Carrie.” The pup’s name is Ray. He can’t be eighteen yet and I wouldn’t put him over one hundred pounds. He’s Isaac Stewart’s boy. I’ve seen him working at the docks. I’ve never seen him training down here in the ring and I don’t like it at all. “What’s up?”
I frown at him, as I drop my duffle on a mat and stretch my arm behind my neck. “What’re you doing in here, Ray? You just hanging out with Bill?”
“Fighting tonight,” Ray says, grinning. It makes my stomach turn over. “Trial run, Remmy says. But even if I lose, I get fifty bucks!”
“Ray…” I heave a sigh. Ray’s got close cropped black hair. He might be wiry and stronger than he looks and he might be fast but he’s not going to win over some of these wolves, not ever. I know he couldn’t beat me and I hope I don’t ever have to fight him. For Pete’s sake, I’ve babysat the kid a few times. “Why? Why would you fight? I only do it because I have to.”
“Still money,” Ray says, his smile collapsing a little. “I’m saving up to leave. And I’m tough, Carrie! Tougher than you think.”
I’m disappointed in him. I remember once babysitting him when he was young and working on some project for school and I thought he was so smart. He was better in school than I ever was anyway. So much for smarts. “Saving up to leave,” I say, shaking my head. I turn away from him and head over to the free weights. “Yeah, everybody’s savin’ up to leave.”
I don’t like fighting but I’m good at it. I do like training though, even when I’m tired. It takes me out of myself. It’s not as good as running in the woods but I barely have time to do that anymore. Tonight I train in human form for about an hour and a half and then I run around the track shifted and spar with a couple other fighters. Altogether, there are about twenty-five fighters right now and some fight more than others. We heal pretty quick but sometimes an injury will take somebody out of The Ring for a while or Remmy will get it in his head to have somebody lay low for a while and bring them back out like it’s a “come back.” Then there’s me. I fight a lot. At the moment, I’m Remmy’s star. I don’t like that. It’s a dangerous place to be. Being the best fighter in The Ring means sooner or later, everybody’s going to want a piece.
That night I go up against two male wolves about twice my size and I leave them bleeding and whimpering in the cage.
 It’s a Thursday so there’s a good crowd but the place isn’t packed. But everybody is shouting my name as I trot out of the cage and through clouds of cigarette smoke, still licking blood from my chops, and head off back into the gym to the locker room behind it. The last guy really messed up my leg but I try to pretend I’m not limping. That’s gonna be rough for a while.
The cheers don’t make me happy. They don’t make me feel anything.
It’s just another night at The Ring.
That night after the fight, I’m one of the last to leave. I like to leave once I’m no longer needed, but tonight I wanted to see how Ray did.
He got the shit kicked out of him.
I’m actually relieved he didn’t get killed. I had no idea of his skill level, but he did turn out to be pretty quick. Still, Oliver, who’s huge and one of the steady and reliable kind of fighters mopped the floor with him. They had to bandage Ray up quick, he was so torn up as they threw him onto a stretcher and carted his wolf away. I watched the whole thing from the back behind the crowds, smoking and two shots of whiskey in. Maybe it’s for the best. Maybe he won’t come back.
When the fights are over and The Ring starts to empty out, I head to the back and put on my coat. I catch myself looking into the mirror. I feel like I look too old these days. I’m only twenty-six but I feel so much older. I’m attractive yeah but more years like the last couple and I’ll be a withered old crone before I’m thirty. At least I’m not really worried about finding a mate. I only say that because I just don’t think I’ll ever have one. I like a roll in the hay as much as the next girl, but I’ve never felt strongly about anyone and even if I do, I don’t know that I’d be able to trust anyone not to mess up my life further than it’s already messed up.
That night, I hike up the back staircase behind the ring that lets out above ground because I don’t feel like fighting the crowds. I sneak around the corner into the alley that faces the street behind The Ring away from the water. It’s bitterly cold tonight. I feel like proper winter is going to come early this year. But it feels good. I don’t know why cold feels good to me when I’m hurt, but then again I’m a wolf and I live in Alaska so maybe it makes sense. Now I light a cigarette and I lean against a brick wall as I take a drag, feeling like the cold is healing me just a bit.
“Hey, Carrie?” The voice cracks like sticks in the silence and I jerk a little when I open my eyes. My co-worker from the diner, Stacia, is standing in front of me, her breath steaming in the cold. She’s still wearing her waitress uniform, then I remember that she was closing for the night. She shoves her hands deep in her pockets, squinting at me. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
“Yeah, sure, sweetie.” I summon a smile and stand up straight. I’ve only had a little bit of whiskey. I’m not more than buzzed.
Stacia’s sweet so I try to help her when I can. I kind of try to help anybody around here if I can, unless they’re an asshole. It’s rough in a place like Grayling. If we don’t help each other, we’re not going to survive. Besides which, that’s what packs are supposed to do and I know that, even if our alpha doesn’t.
“It’s about Ed,” Stacia says sadly. She looks so apologetic as if she’s already sorry about asking for help. I can guess why. I’ve met Ed. I’m sure he has his good qualities, and it seems like he generally treats her right. But he’s a dumbass. “He’s been gambling a lot…”
Oh no.
“Ah,” I say, nodding. “How deep in is he?”
“Not more than five thousand,” Stacia says quickly. “But I’m so afraid it’ll get worse. I just don’t want him to get in any deeper but he keeps seeing other guys win big and thinking his ship’s about to come in… I try to tell him to stop and he’s just not listening.”
“What can I do?” I say, giving her a nod.
“Well…” Stacia shrugs and smiles a little. “He’s afraid of you, Carrie. A lot of the guys are. I was hoping you could make him see reason?”
I’m not supposed to do that. If it got back to Remmy that I was discouraging his customers, it might get ugly for me.
On the other hand, I don’t give a shit.
“Bring him around tomorrow,” I tell her, stubbing my cigarette out on the ground. “I’ll scare him a little.” I give her a wink and she smiles.
“Thanks, Carrie!” She throws her arms around me and I squeeze her back and she kisses my cheek when she lets me go. “If this works, I’ll make you my key lime cheesecake.”
“Oh man.” I rub my stomach. It’s been awhile since I had a good dessert. “I hope you mean that.”
“Hey, if it doesn’t work, I’ll make you my key lime cheesecake. Haha!” Stacia pats me on the back and I let myself laugh before she makes her way out and, feeling a little better about things, I make my way home too. It’s important to take those warm little moments where you can get them. They’re hard to come by in Grayling.

Chapter Four:  Jason

My first night in Grayling is cold as hell but not awful. I score the job at Casey’s. I’d have to be an idiot not to. It doesn’t take any experience, I don’t even have to make drinks. I just have to clean up and serve food, wash glasses, and process tabs. The owner is Scottie and the place was his dad’s. Apparently this pack has been here a long time but there have been different alphas over the years. Scottie tells me Grayling’s alpha goes by Remmy and is absolutely not to be fucked with. That’s fine with me. I’m not about to mess with anyone. I’ve had enough trouble of my own making and done enough damage to people who didn’t deserve it to last a lifetime. I just need a place to lay my head and keep to myself, and Grayling seems like it might be a good fit. Anyway, it’s got shifters who get me, even if they’re not from Hardwidge. And that’s something.
I sleep out in the woods on my first night and it’s cold as hell because I couldn’t find a very warm spot. I don’t think I’m going to be able to do this half wolf and half human. I’m going to need human shelter. In the morning I wake up sore and cold but I bathe in the river and shift back, walking from the woods back down into Grayling to go to work at Casey’s. Scottie’s not there when I arrive on the first real day of work but another guy knows who I am right away.
“New lone wolf in town, huh?” A short guy with a beard with only one arm, his other sleeve pinned to his shoulder, sticks out his hand for me to shake. “I’m Mick. Good to meet ya. New bar back, eh?”
“Yeah, that’s me.” I don’t smile but I try not to look unfriendly, not because I want to make friends, but I’d rather not make enemies. “I’m Jason.”
We’re back behind the bar. Casey’s is small and crappy but there’s something warm about it too, I guess. The bar is long, and all weathered dark wood. There are only about six tables and some chairs and benches in the place. There are two scraped up pool tables, a couple of dartboards and  music that plays through tinny speakers. I don’t know human music worth a damn. But this sounds like the 70s rock stuff Cal was playing in his truck. I’m getting to like that kind of music. I’d ask Mick about it but shifters who know human stuff get way too amused when you show them you don’t know something.
“Jason.” Mick looks me up and down and nods. “You’ll do. Wanna start on those dishes?”
“Sure thing.”
I’ve never washed a dish in my life. Hardwidge didn’t really have dishes per se. I could have at the Mulligan. They’d have us do chores every day. But guys didn’t do most of the washing. But there’s soap , hot water and a sponge and they want the dishes clean.  I’m not an idiot. I get the water good and hot and then I start washing up and, strangely, I kind of like it. It feels nice on my hands. I scrubbed floors sometimes at the Mulligan. I kind of liked that too.
The irony is that this kind of thing was considered “mate’s work” at Hardwidge. We barely had homes, as in human homes, because we were supposed to live like wolves as much as possible. But home-making was definitely considered a woman’s duty. My mom did that stuff and when she took off, it fell to Alice.
“Get your ass back in the shack, Alice, and clean it up. There’s a deer carcass in there. Do it before I get back from the hunt or I’ll show you what it’s like, girl.”
That was how I took care of my sister. What a great guy.
I plunge the hot, soapy sponge into a pint glass and wipe it around. I make sure all the beer stains are gone and I rinse.
You’re all alone and I’m the only person you have left to try to hang onto.
Alice said that when I went to find her after I escaped. She was working at a bookstore. I don’t even remember everything about going to find her that night. Only that I didn’t know what to do with myself. Everything I’d been taught to fight for seemed to be wrong. She was right. She was all I had left to hang onto. But it was too late. I’d hurt her too much. But what really gets me is that Alice and I come from the same place and she turned out pretty good, at least by assimilated shifter standards. She was working at a bookstore and I think she was going to go back to school. She was with a Tremblay. She was just fine. And me, I was in shifter prison. I was a violent asshole of a screw-up. I was nothing but a Hardwidge lackey. I’m still nothing more than that.
“Shit,” I mutter and I find myself flinching. A glass slid right through my fingers and shattered on the floor because I zoned out and started thinking about the shit I did and Alice and all of it.
“Happens,” Mick says. He’s down at the other end of the bar, leaning and talking to a big guy with a red nose who blinks over at me dumbly. “Just try not to break more than one in a week. But your first week, we’ll be easy on ya.”
I flinched. Which is weird. I used to flinch all the time when I made a mistake because the older wolves would backhand us when we were pups and we screwed up, and if we were shifted at the time, they’d snap at us with their big teeth. But that’s when I was a kid… That was before I became the guy who backhands and snaps. I don’t know why I flinched. I don’t really want to think about it though.
I’m about halfway through my shift when Mick comes over to talk to me. “You’re sleepin’ up in the woods, huh?”
I’m kind of used to nearly any question being a potential threat. In fact, I’m kinda used to nearly anyone at any time being a threat. I brace myself. “Yeah? What of it?”
“Not safe,” Mick says, raising his eyebrows. “Not for a lone wolf. You need a pack to keep warm in those woods and the pack to the south won’t take a lone wolf-”
“I’ll find a warmer spot,” I say, frowning. I’m gonna need human shelter. I know that but that’s going to take some doing. At least, I assume it is.
“Not safe,” Mick says again. He’s leaning back against the counter next to me. I don’t know why he cares, and it makes me suspicious. “There are hunters. Everywhere. And you don’t know this land yet. Again, no good for lone wolves. If you’re gonna fly solo, you’re gonna need a place.”
“Well..” I shrug, clearing my throat. “I don’t have a place. Once I put some money together…”
“I got a place for ya,” Mick says, smiling kindly and tugging on my sleeve. “It’s a shithole, but it’s safe. It’s behind the bait shop. Anna who runs the place rents the room, it’s gotta  little kitchenette and everything.”
“Why do you care?” I say, whipping around to face him and glowering.
Mick puts his one hand up in defense. “Whoa there, doggie. Anna needs a tenant is all. She’s my girlfriend. She’ll rent it for three hundred bucks a month. I dare ya to find better.”
I take a deep breath and try to calm down, running a hand through my hair. A place. Like a place where you live between four walls that’s not even in the woods. The kind of place humans live. I’m a long way from Hardwidge now, I guess.
“Yeah, alright,” I say, nodding. “I can take a look at it-?”
“It’s across the street,” Mick says. “I’ll take you when you break for dinner.”
By the end of my second day in Grayling and my first day of work, I have a place to live. When I finish my shift, I cross the street and go home. Not bad. The place is a shithole but I get the impression that three hundred bucks for rent is next to nothing. I honestly have no idea I’ve never rented a place before. But it’s got a small refrigerator and a counter with a hot plate and a couple counters. There’s a bed too. Anna from the bait shop claims it’s just a couple years old and I should just get new bedding. I guess. I’m used to sleeping in dirt, so I don’t know what the fuss is about.
I sit in my little rented room and I get antsy after about five minutes. I spent the last couple years in a cell not much smaller than this. My wolf wants to move after so long.
So I don’t know a lot of things about human ways but I do know about smoking. I saw it a lot on television (when I got a chance to watch television) and sometimes the guys would come back from town with cigarettes. I don’t remember who taught me how to smoke when I was about fifteen but somebody did. I didn’t make it a regular habit but I like it. I have no idea why. I’m pretty sure it makes me stupid to like something that does no good, costs money, and eventually kills you. But it feels good, especially after a long day and especially after a drink. So after I get off work, I take some of my cash and buy a pack and a lighter and I stand out on the parking lot behind Casey’s and smoke. It feels particularly good in the crisp cold air and I drained the last remaining finger of cheap whiskey from a bottle before tossing it. I feel good having worked and the whiskey’s taken the edge off. It makes the cigarette go right to my head and I stand there leaning, feeling not too bad. Not bad compared to how I’ve been feeling the last few years anyway.
“Hey, lone wolf.” The voice is soft and female and the very sound of it makes something in my blood buzz in a way I can’t explain but I ignore that. I’m staring up at the stars and now I turn my head and slowly see her. The woman is young, but she looks solid, like somebody who can take care of herself. I can tell that even though she’s wearing a heavy coat as her breath steams in the air. She opens her coat a little and pulls on the collar of her black t-shirt like she’s actually too warm. “Can I bum a smoke?”
Her eyes have been on my pack of cigarettes but now she raises her gaze and looks at me and my breath catches a little. My lips purse around my smoke and I blink at her. She’s got the biggest brown eyes I’ve ever seen and they’re beautiful. She’s beautiful if, sad looking. She looks tough too. I wouldn’t mess with her. I would have before, when I was an asshole. I would have done it just to see what would happen even if I knew she didn’t like it. Not now.
“Yeah.” I take out two smokes and offer them. “I got two.”
“So what’s your name, lone wolf?” The girl, the woman, leans back against the wall next to me and lights her cigarette and I can see the streetlights reflecting in her eyes, making them glimmer. Her lips are shiny.  Her face is round and sort of deceptively soft because her pretty eyes are hard. She’s confusing.
“Jason,” I say, feeling stupid. I grimace and look away. It’s fine, I tell myself. There will always be beautiful women. Just stay away from them. I have every intention of doing that. No one should be around me, honestly. She’s probably somebody’s mate anyway. I don’t see a mark but she’s wearing a scarf so who knows?
“I’m Carrie,” she says, with a nod. She’s looking at me almost like she knows me and I feel a wave of familiarity I can’t explain. It doesn’t make any sense. I’ve never met this woman before. “You work at Casey’s?”
I tip my head, squinting at her. Strands of her hair come loose from her ponytail and blow around her pretty face as her breath steams. She has a pouty mouth. I’ll bet she’s a good kisser. I don’t think I am. If I’d seen her at Casey’s today, I definitely would have remembered. “How’d you know I work at Casey’s?”
“There’s nothing to do here and nobody has cable,” Carrie quips, smirking up at me. “New guy shows up, everybody talks. Especially if he’s a lone wolf. So why are you a lone wolf?”
I raise an eyebrow and look away, leaning back against my wall. It’s my wall, I decide. I don’t want to make enemies but I don’t need to make friends and there’s nothing more dangerous than a beautiful woman when you’re new in town. “None of your business,” I mutter.
Carrie laughs at that. She actually throws her head back and everything. “I should’ve made a bet. Lone wolves never want to say what it is they did.” She smiles to herself but looks so tired suddenly and she rubs her eyes. She sticks her spare cigarette behind her ear, the other between her lips. “Well, goodnight, lone wolf. Pleasant dreams.”
I watch her saunter off. She is wearing a sinfully tight pair of jeans and boots. She’s tall, just a couple inches shorter than me. It’s hard not to wonder what’s under that coat. I watch the spiral of her cigarette smoke drift off her head as she walks away.
The next day at work passes pretty much like the first. I even run into Carrie again. She flirts and I don’t know what to do about it. I’ve never flirted with a woman in my entire life. I had a few flings with girls at Hardwidge but there wasn’t much romance to it. I wanted a mate, or anyway I thought I did, and they wanted somebody to protect them from the other assholes in the pack. It never worked out well. There was some sex, not all of it sucked. I don’t know how good I was. I’m literally not sure. Doesn’t make me want to jump in bed with anyone. As far as I can remember, I’ve been pretty goddamn selfish in general and that includes in bed.
“Why don’t you tell me what you did to be a lone wolf?” Carrie says. She’s practically batting her eyes. I can’t make heads or tails of this woman. She looks so tough but she’s flirting. I feel like that shouldn’t make sense.
“Told ya, it’s none of your business.” She’s found me leaning on the wall again and she’s leaning there too. She’s got a big bruise on her cheek that’s making me want to start asking questions. I wonder if somebody backhands her on the regular. I wonder if she’s with somebody who’s just like I used to be? “Why do you keep asking me?”
She walked right up to me and gave me two cigarettes as payback. Then she started leaning and smoking like we’re friends and we do this all the time. It’s the damnedest thing. I’ve also seen her wave and smile to two people walking by. I’ll bet everyone knows her. Everyone seems to like her too.
“I keep askin’ ya,” she says, turning to face me sideways, “because you blush when I ask you and it’s cute.” She takes a drag and raises her eyes to gaze into mine. She knows exactly what she’s doing, and I feel trapped, like I’m sinking right in.
Ever since my first day at the Mulligan I’ve felt an aching sense of loneliness that I’ve known was of my own making. It’s so dark and so deep that I like to try to convince myself that if I make up for all my sins, it will go away. This girl I’ve smoked with twice is looking at me, and I feel it ease just slightly. It’s like suddenly being able to bend a spoon with your mind (I saw something about that on a TV once). It takes my breath away for one brief second.
It also scares the shit out of me and I’m not sure why, except I hurt people. That’s what I do and what I’ve always done. I don’t want to hurt this girl who I don’t even know.
“I’m not cute,” I snap at her. “Why don’t you stay away from me?”
Carrie laughs at that too. “Too small a town to stay away from anybody, buddy. I’m just teasing.” She nudges me and I get this hint of warmth to her. She’s tough, but she’s nice. I guess. I didn’t know that was actually possible. “I don’t expect you to tell me, I’m not really asking.  Look, everyone here’s got some kinda shit they don’t want to talk about.” She shrugs, smiling sadly. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’m just fucking with you.”
“Uh...oh.” I feel my cheeks burning and I see her amusement written across her face as I clear my throat. “Fine then. Sorry. I guess.”
“You’re not used to people fucking with you,” Carrie says.
“ that?” I shrug. We fucked with each other at Hardwidge all the time but it usually meant you went to hunt for your dinner and somebody took off with it and then you beat the shit out of each other. Honestly, I was usually the one taking the food and then beating the weaker wolf into submission. This joking around stuff though, I don’t really know how to pull that off.
“I get it.” Carrie nods at me, taking a long drag of her smoke. “You’re brooding. That’s good. Every town needs a hot guy who broods.” She tosses me a little salute. “Thanks for your service.”
She’s funny, this girl. I don’t entirely get it. But she’s definitely funny.
“HEY!” A male voice booms from out of the dark around us and then some big guy I’ve never seen before approaches from around the corner of the building, half falling down. I feel Carrie tense up next to me and it immediately makes me tense up too. I don’t know Carrie much but if some shit is about to go down, I’m loyal to her over this big guy stumbling toward us, looking wasted. His eyes are red and he’s pointing at Carrie. “Hey, big dog bitch! Queen of The Ring! Hey! I wanna fight!”
Carrie looks totally unsurprised by this behaviour which is weird, because I have no clue what’s happening.
“Go home, Steve,” Carrie says calmly.
“Nah, nah!” Steve is about to fall over but now he shakes out his arms and trills his lips. “I’m gonna fight you! Let’s shift! Wolf to wolf! Queen of The Ring! C’mon!”
“I said to go home,” Carrie says, practically hissing. She gets up in his face and he only looks pleased by it.
I don’t know what this is about. It’s actually a fight I would have stepped into before, if only because I liked a good fight. But I’m trying to keep my head down and I’d rather not have to take anybody on, even if it’s just some stupid drunk I could take in a sec-
I was kind of expecting somebody to shift since we’re all shifters here, but instead Carrie abruptly punches the drunk right in the face, and so hard that it makes me hiss in reflexive sympathy. Steve gets knocked right to the ground, in fact she punches him so hard he spins on his heel as he hits the ground. It’s pretty impressive.
“Goddamn,” I mutter, taking a drag.
“I said to go home,” Carrie says flatly.
“Yeah, alright,” Steve mutters. It takes him a couple minutes to get to his feet, and he has to pull up his pants as they fall down. It’s pretty pathetic.
Carrie doesn’t say a word as Steve trudges off, completely humiliated. Carrie spins around and glares at me. “You got somethin’ to say?”
She might be tough as nails but the streetlights are making her eyes glitter and her cheeks are rosy in the crisp, cold air. She’s absurdly beautiful.
“Nope,” I mumble.
“Good.” She stubs her cigarette out on the ground and tosses me a nod. “See ya later.”
I kind of wish she’d hit on me again just so she’d stand close and let me take a long look at her red mouth. But that kind of entanglement is the last thing I need and even more so, the last thing she needs.
“See ya,” I mutter under my breath.
I stand there in the alley for a long time, trying to get that woman out of my head. I never succeed, and eventually I just walk on home.

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