Being Red: Chapter Twelve

Despite my misgivings, I can’t stay mad at Hayden. As much as I want to push him away and punish him, my mind invariably returns to how he has been there for me all these years. Even when Gregor was rough on me to teach me painful lessons, Hayden was always the one to help patch me up and piece me back together. He has been my friend longer than he has been my boyfriend, and I would hate to jeopardize that simply because we are both stubborn as hell.

I take Kellan’s advice and decide I will give Hayden another chance. After all, making him a protein shake and letting him do his job aren’t really very solid attempts on my part to make up. After all our years together, I owe him more than that.

When I get home, Hayden is still on the couch where I left him hours ago. I ease behind him and place a tentative hand on his shoulder.

“Can we talk?” I ask.

Hayden doesn’t answer, but he picks up the remote and switches off the TV before turning to half face me. I walk around the couch and take a seat so that we are looking at one another. Or at least I am looking at him. He avoids my gaze.

“I want you to know that you hurt my feelings when you said that Henley is your other half and that I would not understand,” I say, hating to admit what feels like a weakness. “For me, you have always been that person, and it upset me that you couldn’t voice similar feelings for me in return.” I pause to breathe deeply, brushing a few curls away from my eyes. “I’m sorry I didn’t communicate that with you openly and give you the opportunity to respond on your own terms.”

Hayden sighs, deflating. He finally meets my eyes as he says, “I’m sorry, babe. I never meant to hurt you. I love you, and I miss talking to you. I’ve just been so worried about Henley lately, and I’ve felt so powerless to help her.”

I reach for his fingers and grasp them tightly. “I feel the same. It’s terrible just waiting for time to heal her and take away her hurt. I wish there was more I could do for her.”

“I know,” he says. “I know, and I should never have taken out my feelings on you.”

“I forgive you,” I say. “I understand.”

I scoot forward and wrap him in a hug. He hugs me back, and it feels good to have my best friend back. When we brush our teeth and head to bed, apprehension slowly sets in. I don’t know if I’m quite ready for more than cuddles, but this feels like the start we need to get our relationship back on track, and I don’t want to ruin our progress by denying Hayden’s advances if he is in the mood for more.

I am in luck. It seems he desires nothing more than my presence beside him, and I relax. Knowing we are mending the bond between us is enough. The spice can come later.

My sleep is restless as usual, plagued by the ever-shifting narrative of my nightmare. The latest version features Kellan again, but the men who invade the room don’t kill him. Instead, the leader passes me a knife and demands that I drive it into Kellan’s heart. When I hesitate, he presses the warm barrel of his gun to my temple.

Hot tears roll down my cheeks, and when I wake in the morning, my face is damp.

Once I collect myself, I ready for the day. Then I head to the compound where I assemble my team and present a new plan to take down Hodges using the intel Kellan provided. This plan is little different from the one we employed yesterday. I’ve made only slight modifications. This time, we will wear tactical gear. We will draw out our target by pressing on rather than retreating, coaxing Hodges out of hiding by presenting him with a fight he cannot resist. And this time, we will not leave him alive.

Glenn and I approach the garage again, unconcerned by who might witness our approach. We draw our side arms as we circle the building, Glenn pacing backwards to watch my back as I close in on the rear door. I kick the door in with two powerful blows of my boot, and Glenn follows me into the garage, heading to the right after I move left, both of us keeping our backs to the walls. It is impossible to miss the stench of death that hangs in the air as we delve further into the dim space, lit only by the natural light that manages to filter through two windows which have been crudely covered over with paper.

 “I’ve been waiting for you, pup,” croons a voice from the shadows, and my neck prickles, gooseflesh breaking out on my shoulders and arms.

I follow the sound with my eyes and my gun, but I can’t pick out a human form. In the corner, my gaze falls upon the source of the putrid aroma hanging thick in the air. Valerie’s body lies mutilated almost beyond recognition save for her head, which is unmistakable even in the gloom. I don’t allow my eyes to linger long, in part due to the gruesome sight, but mostly because I need to focus on Hodges or I’ll be the one leaving here in a body bag. Or more likely, I’d never leave at all after becoming Hodges’ next meal.

“It doesn’t need to be this way,” Hodges says. “We were born to kill, you and I. There is nothing like rending flesh with your fangs or the taste of blood on your tongue. Try it once, and you’ll never have your fill.”

I continue to scan the garage for Hodges, knowing he can see my lip curl in disgust, but it is as if he himself is made of shadows. It appears no one is here.

“You’re right about one thing,” I say. “And it won’t be like this much longer.”

Hodges laughs, the sound overly animated, and I get a glimpse of just how unhinged our target is. The sound resonates, coming from everywhere at once, giving no indication of his location. I think I catch sight of him slinking closer to me on my side of the garage. I train my weapon on the movement, and Glenn follows suit opposite me.

“All of us taste blood sooner or later,” Hodges says, his voice sounding in my ear as if he whispers these delusions just for me. “It’s only a matter of time. You were raised by them, but you are one of us. There’s no escaping your fate.”

A chill runs down my spine, settling in my stomach. I want to tell him I am nothing like him, but that would be a lie. I too am a killer, I just don’t eat my prey or scavenge the remains of the dead for a morbid snack. Instead, I say, “Fate does have a funny way of catching up to us.”

His laugh is a cruel rumble. The sound seems to come from behind me, and I whirl only to find nothing there.

I feel his presence at my back too late. He pulls me to his chest, his breath warm against my ear. His nose trails down and then back up my neck as he inhales deeply. “And yours is catching up to you faster than you think, little pup,” he whispers. “You won’t be able to stave off the beast much longer.”

My only advantage is that Hodges clearly likes to play with his food and monologue like a token Bond villain. My smile is grim when I say, “Well, very soon that will be of no concern to you.”

I drive my booted heel into his instep. As suspected, this has little effect, but I successfully redirect his focus. In a smooth move, I twist my hips out of the way and fire three shots into his pelvic girdle. He stumbles backward against the wall, and I spin to lock my forearm against his throat and place the barrel of my gun against his temple. It is mere moments before I pull the trigger, but I see the unrestrained excitement shining in his eyes before the life leaves them and he grows heavy beneath the pressure of my arm, slipping down the wall until his body crumples on the floor.

“Way to have all the fun without me,” Glenn teases, scanning the darkness before holstering his gun at his hip.

“You didn’t rush over to help when he grabbed me,” I accuse, keeping the barrel of mine pointed at Hodges’ body just in case.

“You had him,” shrugs Glenn. “Now let’s get outta here. It stinks.”

My adrenaline level is still not quite stable enough for me to feel good about putting away my weapon, but Hodges is dead, and there are no other living souls in the garage besides us. I give the room another once over before holstering my firearm as well.

On our way out, I can’t help looking back at Hodges. I give his body a cursory once-over. Last, I meet his unseeing eyes, the manic gleam now extinguished. He was inarguably certifiable. I can see why Kellan knew beyond a doubt that everyone would believe this psycho killed Valerie, yet I can’t quite shake the feeling that there is some significance to his words. On the other hand, every crazy person is a staunch believer in their own perceptions and theories. Hodges could just as easily have been insane and rambling nonsense to anyone who listened. Now, I’ll likely never know.

When I am finally done debriefing, cleaning up, and grabbing a quick bite with Hayden, I slip into bed. Even then, the feeling doesn’t quite leave me, haunting my slumber. I slip into uneasy dreams, my nightmare once again plaguing my sleeping mind. After my mother leaves me, I wait for Kellan to come for me as he has the past few nights. The wait is excruciating, but he eventually comes through the door and helps me out of the hamper and into my adult body.

“We can fight our way out of here,” he says, squeezing my fingers.

I want to believe him, but I know it is impossible. In all the years, I have never managed to escape. I couldn’t even leave the hamper until recently. I have no weapon, nothing to help me in a fight. I want to ask Kellan why he thinks tonight will be any different. But mostly, I want to ask him how we will manage this feat.

The question is on my lips as the men in tactical gear burst into the room, but as they surround us, the answer is obvious. I don’t know how I didn’t realize it before. Beside me, Kellan shifts and launches himself at the nearest soldier. In an instant, I too change forms. The transition is flawless, and I don’t miss a beat as I throw my muscular body onto one of our attackers, my teeth going to his throat. Blood gushes over my muzzle, and I see red, jumping onto another of our attackers before the body of my last victim stills, my only goal to obliterate the enemy. To make them pay.

As my teeth rend flesh and grate on bone, I begin to see how Hodges may not be entirely wrong. I would have denied it only hours ago, but if blood is the flavor of revenge, then perhaps I could learn to enjoy it.

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