Being Red: Chapter Thirteen

I drive to the grocery store and then walk to a gas station a few blocks away, my mind racing. I can’t escape the memory of my dream last night, the sensation of being other than human lingering with me even hours later.

Have I truly been killing such majestic creatures for half my life? Or has Kellan successfully pulled the wool over my eyes and got me singing his tune, or rather howling at the moon with the rest of the pack? I exhale, slow and controlled. I don’t even know anymore. The world I thought was painted in all black and white is now a wash of grey.

I catch sight of Kellan’s truck turning into the lot and make a beeline for the passenger door before he rolls to a complete stop. He leans over the center console to throw it open for me, and I climb in, swinging the door shut behind me. He pulls out, and we drive. I don’t even care where.

Once we are a few blocks away, I face his profile with confidence I don’t feel and ask, “What is it like to change forms?”

Kellan looks at me as if he can see straight into my soul. Then he sighs and rubs his hand over his forehead, one hand still on the wheel. His response agitates my nerves further, and I almost wish I hadn’t asked. But then I’d be alone with my thoughts as usual with no more information from which to form my own opinion, no deeper understanding of their kind which might help me figure out what to believe. Or perhaps whatever he might say will just confuse me more. I try to remain optimistic and refrain from grumbling or fidgeting as I await his reply.

“It’s a difficult thing to describe,” he says finally.

“Please try,” I beg, unable to accept his non-answer.

“Freedom,” he replies, glancing at me to gauge my reaction.

I wait for him to add more. When he doesn’t, I laugh. “Nothing more?” I ask, although his answer does make becoming a wolf sound exhilarating.

“It’s painful,” he continues. “In a way.”

I purse my lips. In my dream, the change had felt like nothing at all, but such is the way of dreams. The manner in which a werewolf’s skin undulates and their body contorts as they shift makes me believe him. And yet I wonder at his qualifier. “You made it look so easy,” I recall. “You made the transition look smooth and painless.”

Kellan looks shocked that I noticed. “I have many years of practice,” he explains.

Somehow, I know there is more to it than that, but I don’t press him. Instead, I ask, “What is it like afterward? To be in your wolf form?”

“It’s a relief,” says Kellan, a contented smile on his lips. “Settling into your other form just feels so right. Like home. Once we experience our first shift, we can’t go too long without releasing our animal form or we go mad.”

“Isn’t that,” I begin, pausing to find the right word, “inconvenient?”

Kellan laughs, his eyes on the road. “Sometimes. But it’s well worth it to feel simultaneously powerful and at peace.”

After that, he drives in silence, letting what he has told me sink in. I try to imagine what it would be like to feel stuck in my own skin, and even though I don’t have firsthand experience, I think I know what he means. I just dreamt it, and even hours later, I still can’t stop thinking about my dream and what it might be like to slip into another body altogether. I want a taste of that freedom.

For the first time, it strikes me that perhaps Gregor’s desire to kill them all has more to do with jealousy or a feeling of inferiority than fear or worry over the danger posed by their kind.

My brain is suddenly alive with theories, firing so fast that I am left exhausted and more confused than ever. What am I even thinking? I’m not sure anymore.

I need to relax and unwind. I need a vacation. To get away, even if not from my current form but just to a new location.

“What’s on your mind, Dearg?” Kellan asks as buildings fly past as we approach the area of town where I parked my car. I didn’t even notice how far we drove or that we were nearly back.

A dry laugh escapes through my nose. “This and that,” I say. Then more honestly I admit, “I was just thinking that I could really use a change of scenery.”

“Do hitwomen get days off?” Kellan teases.

“About as many as you might expect,” I reply, my tone devoid of humor. “I’ve actually never officially taken off just for fun. I’ve had time off to recover from injuries, and I’ve had breaks between missions, but I’ve never taken the time to get away.”

“Why not?” asks Kellan.

I bite back my automatic retort about how Gregor would never approve it. Just last year Hayden and Henley spent a week at the beach. There is no reason why I couldn’t have joined them. But I didn’t. I sigh.

“I guess I’ve always felt that I have to work twice as hard as everyone else in order to earn my place,” I say.

Kellan can’t hide his skepticism. I expect him to call me out and tell me how ridiculous I’ve been, but instead he says, “Maybe it’s time you do something for yourself and stop worrying about what others might think. Why not take a long weekend?”

I nod. “That sounds nice. And it’s not too long, so I shouldn’t have a giant pile of work waiting for me when I get back.”

“Sure, you can hurry back to all your overachieving and be at work again by Monday,” he laughs. I swear he rolls his eyes, but his gaze is focused on the white lines as he pulls into a parking spot at a different gas station another few blocks from where I left my car.

“Try not to miss me,” I quip as I hop out.

“Never, Dearg,” he says, and I get the feeling there is more to his words, but I decide to take them at face value since I’ve done enough deep thinking for today.

I take my time walking back to my car, and on my way to the compound I get to thinking that a girls’ weekend is just what I need. Henley is still physically recovering, and I need the mental break. What better combination could there be? I’m certain a mini vacation will do us both some good.

Henley instantly agrees, Gregor approves the time off for us with no fuss, and I refuse to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I hop online and rent us a charming cabin in the woods for the weekend. The next day, my car is packed and we are headed out to ignore our responsibilities for the next three days. I am happy to say that comfy clothes, our favorite snacks, and a couple bottles of wine outnumber the weapons in our arsenal on this trip, and I can’t help but smile as we leave work behind.

“I am so excited for girls’ weekend!” Henley squeals as I pull out of the gas station after filling up the tank for the long drive ahead. “Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m sick of being cooped up until I am cleared for field duty.”

“Thank you for coming with me,” I say, and I mean it.

“What made you pick a cabin in the woods?” she asks, eyebrow quirked.

I can’t tell her that thoughts of wolves are still dancing around in my head or that I want to be as far from the compound as I can get without hopping on an airplane, so I say, “I just wanted to hole up somewhere cozy and relax.”

“It’s a bit horror-movie-esque with a strong we-might-get-murdered-by-a-psycho-in-the-middle-of-nowhere-or-be-chased-by-an axe-murderer vibe, but I love it!”

I don’t want to tell her that we are the murderers or remind her that even though we are on PTO we are still armed for a fight, so to keep the mood light, I playfully argue, “Is not!”

“I said I love it,” she insists, laughing a full belly laugh I haven’t heard in far too long. “It’ll be perfect for watching some scary movies later.”

I had forgotten how nice it feels to just talk with a good friend. Although Hayden is my boyfriend, sometimes I enjoy Henley’s innocence and straightforwardness to her brother’s more critical nature. It is so nice not to have my every word analyzed for ulterior motives or alternate meanings, plus her enthusiasm is infectious. I realize I am smiling.

“Mind if I choose the tunes?” Henley asks. She has already kicked off her shoes and has one foot pulled up under her opposite thigh.

“Go for it,” I say. “Just don’t pick anything that will put your chauffeur to sleep.”

I guess I should have phrased that differently and requested music that would keep us both awake, for after less than ten minutes, Henley is passed out snoring in the passenger seat with her head lolling against the headrest. Without her company to keep me occupied, my mind consistently circles back to my dream and my conversation with Kellan, and the four and a half hour drive feels like ten. When I at last turn onto the gravel road and the cabin comes into sight, I breathe a sigh of relief.

Henley jolts awake when we hit a bump in the driveway.

“Whoa, how long was I out?” she asks. “Are we there yet?”

She looks around in confusion, wiping a trail of drool from the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand, and I laugh as I put the car in park.

“Come help me unload everything,” I say. “I’ll get the door unlocked for us and then come grab a load.”

It doesn’t take us long, but the sky is darkening when we’re settled on the couch with our dinner, wine, and snacks watching rom coms from the nineties. Despite her earlier claim, I think Henley is too scared to watch horror movies in the middle of the woods.

Kat is dancing on the table at Bogey Lowenstein’s party when Henley suddenly turns to me and, after a sip of her wine that is arguably more of a gulp, asks, “How are things with you and Hayden? He mentioned that the two of you made up, but you know how men are.” She shrugs, “And brothers. They’ll say anything if they think it will protect you.”

“We’re fine,” I assure her. “He wasn’t just trying to make you feel better this time. He was telling the truth.”

Henley sighs. “Good. I felt so terrible, like the rocky patch you were going through was all my fault,” she admits. “It felt like I was the reason you were fighting in the first place.”

“No,” I assure her. “Our relationship and it’s troubles have nothing to do with you. Our fight may have manifested in the moment because Hayden was worried for you, but he was already mad at me. The situation just triggered the negative feelings that were already there. If we had communicated our feelings properly before then, the whole situation wouldn’t have been blown out of proportion. Don’t ever think it’s your fault.”

Henley offers half a smile. “Thank you. You’re a good friend.”

“I’m just being honest with you. Conflict comes from within a relationship, not something without. And when a relationship is healthy, it can weather external conflict.”

“Sorry to ruin our evening with such a serious subject,” Henley says with a weak laugh.

“I’d rather we talk about it than let unspoken worries keep us from maintaining our friendship,” I say.

“How are you so wise?” Henley asks, winking at me as she takes an appropriately small sip of her wine.

“I think it’s the booze,” I joke, taking a pull from my own glass before raising it in a toast. “To girls’ night!” I declare.

“To girls’ night,” Henley echoes. “May it henceforward be an annual event!”

We laugh and drink and snack well into the night. When Henley finally trudges off to bed, I realize I have been avoiding sleep. I can’t stop myself from gazing out the window. Something about the woods makes me restless. I feel this intense need to be in the trees. I wonder if this is anything like the feeling Kellan described to me yesterday, and now that I am again alone with my thoughts, memories of my dream and all that Kellan shared with me once more plague my mind.

On autopilot more than consciously, I grab my jacket, stuff my feet into my boots, and slip out the door. I quietly lock it behind me, for although I feel oddly safe out here I would not be able to live with myself if anything else were to happen to Henley on my watch.

I breathe deeply, taking in lungfuls of fresh night air. I look up at the black velvet sky speckled with a thousand sequins of light. The multitude of bright city lights prevent me from seeing the stars back home, so I revel at the fantastic view. I continue to gaze above me through the branches of trees hanging overhead as I delve deeper into the woods and ever further from the cabin. The forest should scare me, but no matter how hard I try to convince myself of the peril it might bring, it doesn’t. The trees feel like home, but as far as I know, I’ve lived in the city my entire life. Somehow, none of that matters.

It’s the dead of night, there is only a sliver of moon, and I am completely at ease wandering through these woods, whatever secrets they might hide.

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