26 of March, 2021 – 2:10 AM
While my life had changed drastically over the previous nine months, there were some aspects of it that I had grown accustomed to. It wasn’t my new life as a member of a pack–that was off-putting, comforting, and annoying all in one. There were some nice new faces, like Whitney and Finn, who went out of their way to teach me everything they knew about pack hierarchy and the Hunter lifestyle. Others, like Luke Howard and Beckett Rose, made it their mission to come down on me for being a late-bloomer, making me dread every gathering. Then there were the annoying gossip queens Sarina Jimenez and Danivyn Norwood, who did a lot of whispering and threw a lot of side-eyes for chicks who fronted like they didn’t want me around. I get that those two were Whitney’s friends, but god, I couldn’t stand them. And then there was Estelle, Whitney’s little sister, who seemed to be completely oblivious to my existence. She never so much as looked my way, which made my crush on her all the more infuriating.
The weirdest part? My awkward relationship with our pack’s alpha, Zander.
For those who aren’t up-to-date with pack hierarchy and its modern twists, here’s how it works: juvenile members of the overall pack tend to create their own smaller pack as a means of community and solidarity. Historically, the pack has one or two alphas, maybe a couple of betas, their general members, and then a single omega. The alphas are chosen based on their lineage: if both of their parents are alphas, they’re guaranteed alpha. If just one, they’re guaranteed beta and have the chance to prove themself and become alpha. No such lineage, you’re a general member–and if you’re not very popular, you’ll be stuck at the bottom of the pecking order as an omega. The alphas lead, the betas follow the alphas and lead in their absence, the subordinates all do as they say, and everyone gets to take their frustrations out on the omega werewolf.
No, we don’t use this method because we “think real wolves use it.” We know they don’t. They can’t–at least, not to the degree that humanoid brains and beings with higher intelligence and social skills can. While it’s been proven that wolf packs tend to have leaders and subordinates, the roles and terminology vary greatly, and their reason for these assigned roles is a simple one: breeding. And those of us born and raised as humans know that our existence doesn’t revolve around our genitals, who we love, or our ability to start a family, so we don’t abide by that bullshit. We have our own hierarchy that is loosely based on the animals you’ve seen on TV, so don’t bother telling me how we’re “living wrong.”
A modern twist that’s been on the rise has been the elimination of the omega role in werewolf packs. In normal wolf packs, an omega is a wolf that all the others pick on when they’re bored or upset. They’re the last ones to eat and the first ones expected to watch over the pups. In werewolf packs? They’re the leftovers, the bullied outcasts expected to perform the jobs that no one else wants.
However, Zander had been advocating for our pack to join the Hollywood and Winnipeg werewolves in dropping the omega role around this time, pushing for inclusion. It was a first in the Salem pack, and I had to admit that it made me rethink all the negative things Whitney had said about Zan–especially since his sudden stance would mean a better life for me, our pack’s omega. In books, the teenager who discovers their secret heritage and is introduced to an entirely new family is usually met with a cruel step-parent and an asshole stepsibling. Either fact is far from fiction, or I just lucked out, because Derrick Woods has been nothing but welcoming since Ma introduced us. Zander wasn’t exactly friendly, but he was never mean or rude–just quiet and mysterious, like he kept to himself and was observing everyone around him. I honestly believed that he hated my guts until I learned that he was trying to get rid of the omega label.
Don’t get me wrong. I knew that removing that label would change nothing–not the way Zan’s friends treated me, or the way Whitney’s friends saw me, nor would it magically make Estelle notice me. I just didn’t want them to have the omega excuse to fall back on every time someone confronted them on their behavior. The elimination of the role made their justifications amount to nothing, and I wanted that more than anything else at the time.
… Okay, that wasn’t entirely true. While that wish was pretty up there, what I really wanted more than anything was to learn the truth about my sister’s death.
It had been almost five years, and Ma still wouldn’t talk to me about what happened. All I had were some vague internet articles with scarce information and what little Pops could tell me, and it didn’t paint a clear picture. Still, I got the gist.
Friday, December sixteenth of the year 2016. Jade had gone home after school with Madison, a friend that lived down the road from Salem State University, with the intention of staying the night. I had a fever, so Ma had dropped me off at Grammy Zo’s, my paternal grandmother, that morning on her way to work. Pops was laying pipe in New Hampshire, so he was at least sixteen hours away. Ma picked me up and brought me back home around seven that night, unaware that her daughter wasn’t where she was supposed to be. According to the articles, Maddie had told the police that she and Jade got into an argument that afternoon, which resulted in Jade storming off on her own a little after four.
It wasn’t until noon the following day that Ma tried calling Jade’s phone and got her voicemail. She called Maddie’s mom and, when she found out that Jade hadn’t stayed the night, immediately called it in. Detectives from her precinct came by and questioned us–her partner, Emiel Wallace, was taking the lead since she couldn’t. Pops dropped everything and was on his way back when the detectives went to question Maddie and her family. They took down the names of some of their mutual friends and asked if Jade had any enemies, but we had no information to give them. She was a good kid with lots of friends who had never disappeared like this before–who could have possibly wanted to hurt her?
Pops was staying at a hotel in New Hampshire with his crew for the duration of their job, so there was no way he could’ve made it back before Saturday morning, and that’s if he had driven straight home without any breaks. Ma was stuck at the station all day; according to Pops, she was part of an investigation that included several local precincts and focused on drug trafficking and opioid-related deaths, and was too busy to even look at her phone. Grammy Zo didn’t drive, and we were estranged from the pack at that time, so there was no one to give Jade a ride home. This left her with two options: take the bus, or walk all the way home.
Back then, I thought she had chosen poorly, but over time I’ve come to see why she made the decision she did. Walking home from Maddie’s would take anywhere from an hour to ninety minutes, depending on the route she took, whereas she only needed to walk ten minutes in order to hop on a bus and get there in maybe seventy minutes. Either way, she was looking at at least an hour of travel, right?
All of that logic flies out the window when you consider two factors: the first is that Jade was fourteen at the time, and teenagers are impulsive. She had just gotten into it with her best friend and ran off–an emotional reaction, and when Jade got upset, she cried. It didn’t matter if she was scared or angry or nervous, the girl would crack under pressure and bawl her eyes out. She could have taken the bus, but that meant she might have to deal with people, and no one likes to cry in public. Teenagers also tend to have dumb ideas and make risky moves based off of these dumb ideas… And the dumb, risky idea Jade had was to cross the tracks and cut through Salem Woods on foot right before sunset.
I mean, it makes sense on paper; if you drew a straight line on a map between our place and Maddie’s, you’d find only a mile and a half between them, if even that. Sure, the woods have trails to maneuver, and once she got out of them she’d have to meander another twenty-five minutes in our neighborhood before reaching her destination, but Jade and I had come up in those woods. We knew every trail, every shortcut that it had to offer, and we’d even managed to make it from one end of the woods to the other in fifteen minutes, with an extra ten in the winter. There wasn’t even an inch of snow on the ground that evening, and the wind wasn’t more than a strong breeze. The sun was setting as she left, so she would have made it home by twilight if everything had gone according to plan. Jade saw a forty-minute detour through the woods as more favorable than an hour and a half on foot or on a bus, and I can’t fault her for that. Considering everything she knew and felt, her reasoning was sound. Even so, it was all just Detective Wallace’s theory.
The second factor? Well, it kind of verifies the above theory, but it also throws a wrench in it–and that’s where they found Jade’s body. They had combed the woods with cadets and K-9 units late Saturday, and at ten-oh-eight that night my mother got the call. They found Jade, and she was gone.
She was dumped on the northern edge of Thompsons Meadow, nearly a tenth of a mile further south than she needed to be. Her clothes were filthy and wrinkled, and it appeared as if someone had dressed her. She was covered in scrapes, bruises, and cuts all over as if she had been in a struggle for her life. Her house keys, wallet, and overnight clothes were untouched in her backpack, which was found next to her body. There were no signs of sexual assault or anything of that nature, but there were a few disturbing details. Like how the medical examiner found a needle mark in her neck and traces of opioids in her system, despite the fact that Jade had never so much as smoked a blunt or drank beer. And that she had been shot in the chest and bled out before she was redressed and moved to the meadow.
The thing that really sticks out to me–and I’m sure it stuck out to Ma–was the fact that this occurred in the same week as a full moon.
I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t know what to do with any of this information–and for the longest time, I didn’t think there was anything that I could do… And then I transformed for the first time last July, and I was introduced to all of this. Werewolves, full moons, fancy magick portals, and a secret pocket dimension where people like us went to school…
That’s when it hit me–I could make a difference. I had an amazing level of control over my transformation, and I had the speed and senses of a giant magickal wolf. Who could stop me from investigating Jade’s death?
For one, my parents. Her death ruined them; for a while there, Pops blamed Ma for not trying to call Jade that night, and she blamed him for always working. Their marriage suffered, and after two years of counseling and divorce proceedings, Ma moved out and focused on her career. She made sergeant after only a year, and she was slated to be the next lieutenant when her current commander retired in a few months’ time. Pops dated around a bit but never remarried, so when he heard about Ma and Derrick getting hitched, he was devastated. Needless to say, neither one of them would want me to focus my efforts on cracking the cold case that tore our family apart.
Second, literally every member of our pack. I had been reminded on countless occasions not to go off on my own, especially during the week of the full moon. The myth regarding Hunter transformations is that we only shift into our beast forms once a month, on the night of the full moon. I’ve learned the hard way that this was a misconception; Hunters can actually shift into their beast form at any point. The fuller the moon, the stronger we get–and as our strength grows, our self-control wanes. Those with poor self-control will shift into their beast form as soon as the full moon rises, and they’ll have trouble shifting back before moonset–and as our baby pack’s late-bloomer, I was flagged as a risk. So, I was technically not allowed outside at night in the three days leading up to a full moon, the night of, and the three days that followed.
Not that I let that stop me.
I had developed a routine: every month for a week straight, I would pretend to go to bed like normal and sleep until just before midnight. Then I’d sneak out of the house, run into the nearby woods, undress, and shift forms. After that, all it took was some trial and error to figure out the best route to Salem Woods that wouldn’t expose me to the world. It only took a few nights of searching to see that there was nothing left for me to find–any evidence was long gone thanks to years of weather and foot traffic.
One night, I was digging around the meadow when I heard what sounded like a scuffle. An older man was being mugged by three guys downtown, and the dudes had jumped him. I was debating whether or not to help out when the assailants got away. The idea that someone needed help while I sifted through dirt left a bad taste in my mouth. My sister was my best friend, and I loved her, but she was long gone–and if she were there, she would tell me to do right by others, no matter what.
Earlier that first week of school, I concocted a new plan. I did everything as usual, except around midnight I got ready for my classes at AOA. I crossed through the portal with Zander; we’d come back separately, but he was always waiting for me when I got back–though I couldn’t figure out why. It wasn’t like he said much more than a couple of words to me. All he did was look up from his phone to confirm that it was me entering the portal, nod, and then head back to his room. I took that opportunity to head to mine and resume my nightly routine. I learned that the humans who did see me thought I was just a bear, but I still tried to stay out of sight.
I was on my way to Peabody–no rush, just bored–so much so that I stopped by a sports bar and nosed through their dumpster for a few minutes.
… Okay, don’t judge. Shifting requires a lot of energy, alright? And we were just two nights away from a full moon, so my self-control wasn’t top-notch. I just couldn’t resist barbecue chicken wings, so I ate them out of the trash. Like a sane person. Shut up.
Anyway, that was about when I noticed her. At first, all I could hear was a laugh. It wasn’t exactly familiar, so I didn’t really think much of it until I heard it travel overhead, as if whoever it was had jumped from one building to another. There wasn’t exactly another building close enough to the bar to fuel this theory, and I was about to chalk it all up to my imagination when I caught her scent. It was a faint floral aroma that was overpowered by something I’d never smelled before–like dirt-covered oranges. And the beach. And some kind of tree…
Before I knew it, I was sneaking away from the bar and running after the fading scent. I couldn’t see the source, but I could hear their excited breaths and the quick beating of their heart. I don’t know why I followed, but considering what happened next, I’m glad I did.
At that moment, all I knew was the joy of running and the excitement of the unknown.