Being Red: Chapter Two

I’ve been manhandled and bossed around by a couple werewolves, and I’m livid. I’m so angry I can hardly get my key in the ignition, and the swelling beginning in my fingers isn’t helping, not to mention the violent shaking of my hands fueled by my rapidly growing fury. I’ve just managed to start the engine when there’s a tap on my window. I look up to see Kellan leaning against the roof of my car, his sexy too-long hair falling into his eyes. I don’t see Loren anywhere.

Dammit, I need to focus. Being this distracted is going to get me killed.

The wolf mimes rolling down the window. I glare at him for a moment, but do as instructed.

“Phone,” Kellan says flatly, holding out his hand. “Didn’t think you could just walk away, did you?” he asks as I tug my cell from my jacket pocket.

I hand it to him, maintaining my grip longer than necessary so he is forced to yank the phone from my hand. The lock screen lights up displaying a generic stock image, and he patiently holds it out for me to enter the passcode. His patience annoys me.

“How did you find me?” I ask, watching his face in the electronic glow of the screen as he creates a new contact.

“Sometimes being the number one predator makes people cocky,” he says. “And careless.” He glances up from the screen at that last part, checking to see if he got a rise out of me.

I reward him with a scowl. “Bullshit,” I say. I’m never careless. Or I wasn’t. Not until tonight. Before, I would have said it was uncharacteristic of me to pick a fight with strange wolves and even more so to allow myself to become so fixated I didn’t even notice someone approach my vehicle. Now I’m rattled and hoping this isn’t the new normal.

Kellan lets me stew for a bit before conceding, “Fine. We sniffed you out. Took us a damn good while to put it together too since there are so many recurring scents wherever you take down a mark.”

“Guess I should have known I could never hide from a dog,” I say sardonically. “I’ve seen that episode of MythBusters.”

To my surprise, Kellan laughs. I don’t, maintaining my token scowl, after all, I was hoping to cause offense.

“Stop looking so dour,” says Kellan as he returns my phone.

I see he has already texted himself, just one word. It says simply, “Red.”

“Very funny,” I say. “I hope you don’t think you’re being original.”

“Not one of my aspirations,” Kellan says, unphased. “But it’s not like it’s a secret. Everyone knows ‘Red’ is your alias.”

I type as quickly as I can with my increasingly useless fingers and press send, my own one-word message making its way through the ether to his phone: Prick.

He looks over my shoulder to see what I typed rather than checking his phone, the unread notification illuminating the right pocket of his jeans. “You don’t have to take it out on the messenger. People need something to call the supernatural world’s number one hitwoman,” Kellan reasons. “Besides the allusion is fitting. Little red turns badass and offs the wolf who hunted her and killed her grandma.”

I roll my eyes at Kellan for giving voice to the obvious. His face is smug, like he said it just to annoy me. “Go away and leave me alone,” I say as calmly as humanly possible. “I’ll let you know when I receive my next target, but until then, I don’t want to hear from you. And I hope you understand the importance of being discreet. If Gregor finds out what you’re trying to do, I’ll hunt you down and make sure you suffer.” Before Gregor makes me suffer, I think pessimistically. But what can I say? I’m a realist.

“No need to tell me twice. I know a thing or two about keeping quiet,” Kellan assures me. With a grin, he pushes himself off my car and adds, “See you when I see you.” Then he turns and strides away.

For a moment, I contemplate chasing after him to add another layer of black to his already discoloring eye socket. My body hums with unspent rage, the energy tingling in my extremities begging me to do more things I might regret, but I think better of it, and let him go. Instead, I quickly roll up my window, lock my doors, and sit in my car until I breathe evenly through the waves of my growing ire. I pull down the visor, checking my face in the small mirror. My lip is fat and the inside is still a bit bloody, but overall I don’t look too bad. I do a cursory check on all my teeth and thankfully they still feel solidly rooted in my gums. Grabbing the water bottle I left on my passenger seat, I take a swig and rinse the blood from my mouth. I swallow, not wanting to open my door again for fear of something I am not yet entirely ready to admit.

After I use some make-up removing wipes to clean my face a bit more and reapply lipstick to somewhat hide my injury, I manage the drive home without getting in a wreck. When I’m parked in my designated space, I deliberately step out of the car and climb the stairs to my apartment. I take a calming breath as I push through the door.

My attempt at serenity is ripped away, my breath whooshing out in an almost imperceptible growl, when I see Hayden tossing my colors and whites into the washing machine at the same time. After the last few hours, it’s all I can do not to rip him a new one.

“Hey, babe” he calls from across the apartment, oblivious to my mood.

“Hey,” I grind out between clenched teeth before kicking off my shoes and getting a bag of ice from our small open-concept kitchen.

“You feeling alright?” Hayden asks, hearing both my tone and the ice machine emptying into the Ziplock.

“Not really,” I tell him honestly, glad the bag of ice hides my hand. “I’ve got a pretty bad headache,” I lie, trying to brush him off so I don’t say anything terrible to him in a my current state. I tell myself my laundry will survive a single man-cycle: everything mixed together, washed in warm water on the normal setting. I mean, Hayden’s clothes always come out fine.

“Do you want me to get you anything?” Hayden offers.

I soften a little at his sweetness. “Thanks, but I’ll be fine. I just want a shower.”

As I head past him on my way to the bathroom, Hayden plucks at my hair and asks, “Is that a band-aid?” Fingers coming away empty, he proceeds to throw one of my good bras in the washer, shamelessly mixing my delicates into the load, and I can’t take it anymore. No way my bra is being subjected to a man-cycle. Hayden doesn’t own anything that nice, so there’s no telling the results.

“That and probably a lot worse,” I snap. “And leave my underthings alone. What did my bra ever do to you?” I demand, snatching the garment out of the washer with my good hand and shooing Hayden away.

“Babe, I’m just trying to help,” Hayden placates, attempting to slip his arms around me and spin me around for a kiss.

I shrug out of his embrace. “I’m going to take a shower,” I tell him “Don’t you dare start that while I’m in there.”

“I won’t touch it,” he promises, hands held up in surrender. After a pause, he surmises, “So I should go make myself dinner.”

“That would be smart,” I say acidly and slam the bathroom door in his face, locking it with a snick.

I turn on the shower and let it run while I strip off my clothes. A bobby pin falls out of my hair as I tug the shirt over my head. There are still a few blond hairs in it. Those are definitely not mine, so I pick up the nasty little pin and toss it in the wastebasket with a frown.

Stepping into the shower, I hold the bag of ice on my injured hand out of the spray. The frigid cold is painful, but I’ve learned to endure the bone-deep ache because keeping the swelling down now will ease and speed my recovery later.

I’m washing my hair one-handed with a modicum of success when I hear my phone ring. I blanch, for a terrifying moment afraid it might be Kellan on the other line. It’s not difficult to talk myself around. The werewolf may be many things, but stupid isn’t one of them. My phone continues to ring, vibrating in the pile of my clothing as I hurry to dry my hands. I dig the cell from my pocket and quickly check the caller ID. It’s from an unknown number.

Anyone could be calling, but there’s a good chance the caller is Gregor.

“Gregor,” I say by way of greeting, praying to anyone or anything in the universe who will listen that my boss has no idea what I’ve been up to.

“Red,” he replies, confirming my hunch. His voice is steady and almost monotone, as usual giving nothing away.

I gamble for the second time. “Who’s the mark?” I ask, for as far as I know, Gregor only makes phone calls for two reasons. Either because he has a mark to assign, or because someone is in deep shit. Otherwise, he’s into emails. He’s a minimalist, so these are brief, including only the bare details demanded for efficacy.

Gregor allows the pause to drag on long enough I’m beginning to wonder if I was wrong. Finally he answers, “Clint Woodsworth. He’s a businessman who works downtown.”

“When?” I inquire.

My phone pings in the background, and I know I now have an encrypted dossier on Mr. Woodsworth in my inbox. With Gregor, it’s all about efficiency.

“Woodsworth stays late at the office most nights, but usually goes out to eat around seven o’clock. That’s your window. Don’t miss it.”

“You know I never do,” I assure him.

“I trust you won’t.” He says it almost like a threat.

Then the line goes dead and I am left to wonder if he somehow knows, the steam of the vacated shower curling around me in swirling tendrils. Drying water chills my body, dripping from my hair, down my back and along my arms and legs in rivulets. I climb back in the shower and finish washing as quickly as possible. After, I give the shower knob a sharp twist to the left and let the searing water rush over me, so hot it almost feels cold. I stand there for a while and try to rid my mind of thoughts.

When I finally turn off the water, I look like a boiled lobster and the air is even thicker with humidity. I flip on the ceiling fan as I brush my teeth. I still have to deal with the laundry, but my bra is safe and I can’t muster the energy to care anymore. I stuff my filthy clothing on top of the load, jacket and all, pour in twice as much detergent as I would normally use, and start the cycle Hayden set.

As I crawl into bed, I snuggle up to Hayden. His back is to my side of the bed, and I drape myself over his shoulder to put my lips near his ear.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper. “I didn’t mean to be so harsh earlier.”

He grumbles, but doesn’t respond.

“Thank you for giving me space,” I add, squeezing him a little tighter.

Hayden turns over under me, planting a kiss on my lips. “I forgive you, babe,” he relents. “Besides, I’m a damn good chef when I have to be.”

I laugh softly. “I’m glad this all worked out in your favor.”

“As long as you’re feeling better,” Hayden says, growing serious. He brushes the space between my brows with his thumb. “Did Gregor assign you a mark today? You’re wrinkling your forehead the way you do when you’re worried.”

“I’m fine,” I promise. To cover up the reality that I am in fact not so fine, I go on, “Gregor called when I was in the shower. We have an assignment tomorrow night.”

“Called it,” Hayden says, poking the crease in my forehead as if to validate his methods. “Little bugger gives you away every time.”

Hayden would like to think so, anyway. If only he knew how much I’m not telling him.

I bat his finger away. “Just go to sleep already, or are you trying to make me regret my apology?” I tease.

Hayden gives me another kiss before settling into the mattress and dramatically rolling over to sleep. I give him a playful shove and kiss the back of his neck, not exactly regretting my apology even though it got me poked in the face. On the other hand, it bought me a few more waking moments to postpone sleep and put off the inevitable. Hayden’s breathing grows steady and eventually I cannot stay awake any longer.

The nightmare grips me as it does every night before a kill. I should know better than to even try at this point, but I still strain to open my eyes. I don’t know why I expect this time to be any different, but I do not wake up and instead slip from the heavens to embody my six-year-old self.

My eyes fly open as my mom frantically shakes me awake, and I seethe at the irony of awakening from a dream within a dream. I want to fight it, but this isn’t just any old nightmare and I cannot alter the course of a memory. I attempt to speak anyway, and my dream-self remains predictably silent despite my efforts, stark fear making speech impossible. I feel myself reach up to wrap my arms around my mom’s neck as she scoops my small frame into her arms. I let myself bury my face in her neck, if only so I can once again smell the living warmth of her skin.

Suddenly we are in my parents’ bedroom. My mom must have carried me there, but as is common with dreams and old memories, elements are missing. My mom sinks to her knees and gently shoves me into the laundry hamper, covering me with clothes until I can hardly breath.

“Stay here, baby,” she whispers to me through the plastic holes, her voice quavering yet so gravely serious I know not to disobey her. “Remember that daddy and I love you very much,” she says softly, and then she is gone. I want to call out to her, tell her to come back or that I love her, but again the dream will not allow me to deviate from history.

I have no idea how much time actually passes while I hide swaddled in my parents’ scents. I live each moment as if it were real, agonizing over every second my mom doesn’t come back for me. The wait is excruciatingly slow, in part because time works differently, more slowly, when perceived by children, and because I know what my younger self does not. I will not see my parents again.

When I hear the fighting begin, I desperately want to run downstairs to do something. Anything. This desire lends me strength and I am able to muster enough power over my dream to move some of the clothing away from my face, but nothing more. I cannot climb free of my domestic cage. My heart jumps as I hear crashing, wood splintering and glass shattering as our home is torn apart below. Guttural growls and feral snarls reach my ears and I seethe. Again, I momentarily overcome the dream and my index finger twitches, pulling an invisible trigger.

A series of gunshots ring out, silencing everything. The relief of knowing my parents’ killers are dead wars with the pain of knowing my parents are lost as well. My six-year-old self sits in wide-eyed silence, not yet fully understanding what has happened.

In the fashion of dreams and fading memories, I skip ahead. A middle-aged man bends down near the hamper, elbows balancing on his knees. “Hello, little one,” the man says to me.

My dream-self musters the courage to speak. “Where’s my mom?” I ask through all the clothes. Although young, I realize the presence of this strange man means my parents are probably gone. I do not yet realize the permanence until he answers.

“They are dead,” the man states calmly. “Now come with me. You’ll be safe.”

“I’m waiting for my mom,” I say defiantly, too scared to cry in front of a stranger, and not wanting to believe what he says.

The man’s brow pinches. “You must come with me. You won’t be safe here,” the man explains.

I attempt to understand why my home is unsafe after my parents worked so hard to make me feel the exact opposite, but I can’t, so I just sit there fighting tears.

He tries again, “Your parents won’t be here to protect you, but I can if you come with me.”

“Mom told me not to talk to strangers,” I say.

The man rubs his brow. “My name is Gregor Callahan,” he says. “I can keep you safe, and I can teach you how to keep yourself safe too,” he bargains.

“I’m six,” I say.

“I know you are small now,” Gregor says, “But someday you will be older and you’ll need to know how to save yourself from all the scary things in the world.”

“Like the dark?” I ask.

Gregor chuckles. “No,” he says. “You’ll need to protect yourself from the things that live in the dark.”

“Monsters,” I say, understanding completely.

“Yes,” Gregor agrees. “Monsters. And you, my little Red will be the slayer of them all.”

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