Authors: Brandon M. Herbert
“You know… I don’t usually do this, but if you need to, we can arrange for extra work
time after school. Would that help?” Her voice dropped low, and she sounded hesitant.
My hopes blossomed. “Yeah, that’d be perfect! I’ll have to okay it with my parents, but I’m sure they won’t mind.” A grin spread across my face as I looked up at her, and she snorted with laughter.
“Great! Fen, you’re welcome too of course.” Fen looked up briefly to nod his thanks, and then he snorted too when he looked at me. “Jimmy, you might want to wash your face…”
“Huh? Oh crap!” I looked down at my blackened hands that I’d just rubbed my face with. She followed me over to the sink as I washed up.
“You know Jimmy, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by your work since you arrived here. What are your plans for college?”
My balloon of hope deflated as soon as her words were out. “I don’t have any. My GPA isn’t high enough, and besides…” I sighed, and admitted something I hadn’t even told my parents, “I have no idea what I want to do. My only natural skills are art and music, so I’m pretty much doomed to a lifetime of ‘would you like fries with that?’”
She laughed, “Well, may I suggest something?” she asked and I braced for the inevitable spiel. “Before you resign yourself to a rewarding career in fast food, maybe take a year or two off to figure it out?
“It’s not like the world will end if you don’t go straight to college after graduation. If you’re not ready, I think it’d be more mature to take time and figure out what you want to do. Don’t bulldoze in with no path or plan; only to drop out and become so mired in debt that you’d be unable to return for years, if ever.”
“Why do I get the feeling there’s a really big story behind all this?” I asked and she laughed.
“Just the story of my life.” She rolled her eyes, “I’ll spare you, but the abridged version is that I went to law school because my father expected me to, regardless of what I wanted. When he saw my grades at midterm he blew his top. He cut my funding, kicked me out of the house. All of a sudden I was eight
een years old, homeless, school-less, and desperately looking for a job with next to no experience.
“It took me nearly a decade to pull myself together. I slipped in and out of drugs and alcohol, jobs came and went, but eventually I found my husband and we cleaned each other up. We fought tooth and nail, worked two jobs and barely ate for six years so I could become a teacher.”
Her confession made me a little uncomfortable, but wheels began to turn inside my head.
“I tell you what Jimmy, this high school culture is a lie. Prom queen? Team captain? The real world doesn’t care.” she muttered conspiratorially, and then winked. “Don’t think about the paycheck. You have talent, and if you’re smart, you can make it work. You’re not meant for a cage. Just… think about it, okay?” She smiled and moved from the wall.
“Okay…” This woman had just contradicted almost everything my parents and counselors had pounded into my head; and I couldn’t help thinking that maybe it was just crazy enough to work…
I called Mom during lunch, and she immediately cleared me to stay. I met up with the Pack at Fen’s locker after the bell, but Geri and I left Fen and Loki chatting at his locker.
We threaded our way through the hallway and a strange look came over Geri’s face. I asked him what was wrong, but he just waved me off and said it was nothing. “I dunno, I just thought things would be different once you came,” he muttered and left me at the Art room door. I felt sad he didn’t think he could talk to me. I tried the door but it was locked, so I knocked and a few seconds later Mrs. Ashcroft peeked around the door.
“I’m glad you could come, you got permission then?” She stepped aside to let me in.
I nodded, “Yeah, I knew I would. Mr. Spritari put the fear of suspension into my mom, so the grade card works both ways.”
“Well, I’m sure your parents appreciate it regardless.”
Mom, maybe, John… fat chance.
“Hey, I um. I wanted to thank you; for giving me extra time and… for what you said earlier.”
She smiled, showing the lines in her tan cheeks. “No problem, some of us just need a little more time.”
“Um, I meant about the college thing,” I tried to clarify.
“I know. So, what do you think would happen if someone
go to college right away?”
“Their parents would be disappointed, their friends would mock them, and they’d go nowhere in life.” I smiled without humor and she closed her eyes as she shook her head.
“That’s what they want you to think; those schools, this entire culture,” she said, weary, and then looked at me again. “The colleges want your money as soon and as much as possible, and they don’t care if you waste it as long as they get it. So they encourage this…” She twirled her hand as she searched for the right words “’False Destiny’ that leads so many young minds to ruin.”
Her less-than-shining endorsement of higher education shocked me.
Every other teacher out there seemed completely committed to the cause, and now this woman had contradicted them all twice in a single day.
I think she’d just become my favorite teacher
I sighed. “My parents have been tripping over themselves trying to get me to enroll or choose a career,
career. But I think they’ve finally realized the futility of it.”
“Well, you have to ask them, and yourself;
are you going to school for? Are you going because
want to, or because your parents expect you to? Is it in
best interest to go right away, or should you wait and get a bit more experience under your belt? Do everyone a favor and put your parents on the spot; make sure both of you know that they can’t live vicariously through you. If they’re decent parents, they’ll encourage your happiness over their own ambition.”
She glanced at her watch, “Shoot, I need to leave; and there are some things I need to tell you. First of all; the halls are closed after three-thirty, and there shouldn’t be any students wandering around. Second; the door opens from the inside, but it locks automatically; so once you leave the room, for the bathroom or whatever; you might as well just go home.”
“Would I still get in trouble, even though you gave me permission to be here?” I asked puzzled.
“Nothing serious, but I’d recommend just avoiding the whole fuss. I’d be reprimanded, you would have a mark put on your record, your parents would be called, Mr. Spritari would be pissed; just a big unnecessary mess, so it’s best if you just don’t get caught.” She winked, “I’ll see you tomorrow Jimmy.”
“See ya,” I said as she walked out, her shoes clicked in the hall until the door closed behind her.
I pulled my drawing out and there was a knock at the door. Nervous, I walked over and pulled it open, expecting to see Officer Jenson there to arrest me or something. Instead, Fen shoved past me without a word.
“Jeezus Fen, what crawled up your ass and died?” I closed the door behind him and returned to my desk.
“Nothing, it’s none of your business…” he snapped. I felt a coil of rage begin to unfurl and the hair rose on my neck.
“Well, you’re snapping at
for it; so either it
my business, or stop taking it out on me!”
He paused a moment then muttered an apology as he touched his head to the wall. I picked up a dizzying mix of emotions from him, too many to identify any single one. I had no idea why I felt them, I had most my life, but they seemed to be getting clearer and stronger with my wolf. Mom called it empathy; I called it a pain in my ass. I sighed and tried to relax the muscles in my shoulders. I opened my supplies box and selected a fresh piece of charcoal, “So, do you want to tell me what has you so wound up?”
“No…” he said simply, but without malice.
“Okay.” I didn’t push him, I didn’t need to. We worked in silence as the echoing footsteps and muffled voices that leaked through the door dwindled until all that could be heard was the scritch scritch and occasional squeak of charcoal on paper. I just wished I knew what had the Pack all riled up, it might just be coming down from the full moon high, but I didn’t know for sure, this was all too new.
“You know how werewolves in the movies are usually ‘cursed’?” Fen muttered out of the blue.
“Well, the movies are mostly bullshit, but that’s one part that’s only half wrong. It’s not the way they make it though. You know what it is to be truly cursed?”
I made an encouraging grunt as I shaded.
“Some shifters never fully integrate themselves, so they never learn how to control their shifts, or even remember them sometimes. For the fortunate, it just fades away, but for some… Shifting stops being a gift, and becomes a curse.
“Some get so wrapped up in the phenomena and forget about the spiritual aspect, and it dies inside them.” Fen sighed and shook his head, “Or they train their inner animal like a pet, feeding them anger, rage, and violence. I suspect that’s what caused a lot of the ‘evil werewolf’ mythology in Europe. If they truly believed they were possessed by the devil to consume human flesh, by golly that’s what they did!”
Fen rambled, but he was calming down so I just listened as best
I could while I worked, nodding and agreeing where appropriate. He grew quiet, and an expression washed over his face so quickly I couldn’t quite catch it.
“There’s another way though, it happens when you least expect it—” His eyes grew distant, like he was watching a memory inside his own head. “—and strikes where it hurts most. If a shifter progresses too fast, or pushes too hard, their energy spikes higher than they can handle and they break. We all push ourselves to become more powerful and integrated with our animal selves, but there is a process, a natural evolution. Otherwise we might lose control and hurt someone; not knowing any better.” Fen sighed and rubbed his temples. “The fear, the guilt… it’d drive you mad.”
He looked at me, his face carefully guarded but something haunted in his eyes. “It’s important to realize that you and your animal are the same; different aspects of the same soul. Not something to break and enslave, nor something to allow to dominate you.”
His tangent didn’t seem so random anymore.
“So wait, do you mean
almost ended up ‘cursed’? First, that day outside when I forgot the necklace, and then again the other night?”
He stared at his paper, “Your wolf was already too strong, and he almost seized control from you twice now. Thankfully, you’re made of tougher stuff than any of us expected.” He laughed without humor. “And boy did Loki light up my hide for pushing you so hard. I got carried away, and I’m sorry.”
Ah, well that explained his pleasant mood earlier.
“There’s so much I need to teach you,” he muttered, “I promise Jimmy, I won’t let you become cursed.” The intensity in his eyes left me speechless, so I just nodded and went back to work.
“What?” I looked back at Fen, but he looked confused.
“I didn’t say anything.”
No, you just said my name.”
Fen looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out my ears, “
Um, no, I didn’t…”
“Oh…” Great, now I was hearing shit too, maybe it was already too late and I was losing it.
We stayed in the art room almost every day after school. I used the extra freedom to my full advantage. On days we didn’t have any extra work to do, so we snuck down the alley to Fen’s house to study.
His place was tiny, a little two bedroom home with cracked stucco and a splinter-prone porch that eerily reminded me of the house in Coeur-de-Alene I grew up in, and it was just a couple blocks down Wolf Road from mine. I could count on one hand the number of times I saw his mother; usually it was just a quick ‘hello’ and an exhausted smile as she shuffled through the living room in her scrubs to try and get some rest before her next double shift.
It reminded me of the way things were with my mom back in Idaho when I was young. Fen kept the house operating; he took care of the chores, and tried to make dinner for his mom before she got home. I helped him whenever he would let me; the guy had a stubborn streak a mile wide.