“Quit yapping, Keith,” Scotty said. “You can’t even lift your arm with that hunk of fake platinum strapped to it.”
“I bought a nicer watch at Burger King once,” Bwana added, covering his mouth with his fist as he laughed. “At least it had SpongeBob SquarePants on it.”
Napkins and empty plates littered the table. Getting in one more night of jaybird chatter before the end of winter break, Daniel sat with his friends and his cousin Keith, a small riot wedged into the diner’s corner booth. While his friends jostled one another, Angie curled her fingers through Daniel’s hair. “Tell them,” she whispered.
Nudging Angie’s hand away, Daniel asked, “Seriously, Keith, why’d you buy that thing? You hope if you’ve got a watch with four dials, people might think you can tell time?”
“I can tell— Shut up!”
At the Galleria, Keith had spent his Christmas money on an aviator’s watch with sixty-second, sixty-minute, and twenty-four-hour dials set into the face. Now, flustered, he stumbled over every joke they threw at him.
“We’re just messing with you. Relax. Let me see it.” Reaching across the table, Daniel grabbed Keith’s wrist.
Angie mouthed, “Tell. Them.”
“Man, the numbers go up to five hundred. What kind of Korean junk did you buy?”
Keith snatched his hand back. “That’s the tachometer, idiot.”
“It’s tacky, all right.”
Before another swell of laughter could drown her out, Angie blurted, “Daniel got accepted to Cornell! He got in.”
The booth went silent. Everybody turned toward Daniel.
“He got in,” Angie said again.
Bwana stood up on the seat. He climbed over Geneva and Spence, then dropped back down to give Daniel a bear hug. Squeezing Angie out of the booth, both Bwana and Daniel spilled to the grimy tiles.
“When did you find out?” Bwana punched him. “Why didn’t you tell anybody?”
“I found out a couple days ago. I was going to tell— Will you get off me?”
Bwana got to his feet just in time to smile at the waitress and keep her from kicking them all out. After folding themselves back into the booth, Daniel said, “I was going to tell you. It just hasn’t, I don’t know, sunk in yet.”
“How do you already know?” Geneva asked.
“I sent my application in October and got an early decision slot.”
“Aren’t you excited?”
Daniel shrugged. “Yeah.”
The table shook again as Scotty grabbed Daniel’s head. “You got into Cornell! The Ivy League! Be excited,” he told him. “Be running around buck naked, smoking a blunt, and telling Birmingham it can kiss your ass on the way out.”
Grinning, Daniel pried free of Scotty’s hands. “I’m excited. I promise. I’m excited.”
Claws scraped against asphalt. Vapor trailed from muzzles. All around the wolves, the city was an opal, cold-burning with a million flecks of light.
A white water of sound—tires and grumbling engines—rushed along the overpass above. Val carried a spray can in her jaws, but she couldn’t paint in wolf shape. Shifting into her human skin, she began slashing at the first pillar with black strokes of paint. Eric, still a wolf, brushed against Val’s legs as she worked.
Misty loped down Clairmont toward a diner’s parking lot. Hidden among mounds of dirty slush, she watched cars float past and kept a lookout for cruisers. Chunks of ice froze to the coarse outer coat of Misty’s pelt, but they didn’t bother her.
Val finished the first pillar and dashed to the second. Above, Misty’s twin brother, Marc, patrolled the expressway, padding ghostlike through the orange glow of street lamps.
A homeless man trudged along the overpass’s narrow footpath. Seeing Marc, he stopped and held out a palm for him to sniff, cautious but not afraid, mistaking Marc for an ordinary dog. The man didn’t see that Marc’s rangy shape concealed more speed and strength than any pet. He didn’t realize a wolf could tear the skin and sinew of his arm, shatter the bones, as easily as he could bite through an apple.
The man tried to scratch Marc’s head. Ducking, Marc leaned against the guardrail to let him pass.
Misty’s ears flicked toward giggling whispers. A couple stepped out of the diner. Strains of laughter and food smells, onions, sizzling oil, and meat wafted out the door with them. They hurried across the parking lot, the woman pressing against her lover for warmth. Before sliding into the passenger seat, she kissed him. Her voice dropped to a gentle hush.
Misty listened from between the cars. She remembered the way Andre used to whisper to her, even though he was a jerk. Suddenly, the wind that had plucked harmlessly at Misty’s pelt stung her face cold enough to sear. She grunted, realizing she was a human again, the slush soaking through the knees of her jeans.
They shifted into wolves from the inside out. Before their bodies changed, Misty’s pack had to let their minds sink to a primal, instinctive depth. Thinking about Andre or how good the woman looked in her red overcoat—thinking too human—yanked Misty back into her shivering human shape.
Closing her eyes, Misty imagined her wolf-self. She dropped her hands against the ground, but her fingers stayed thin and tipped with pearl white polish. Frustrated, she slapped the ground over and over until a speck of glass scraped the pad of her thumb. The ragged pain made Misty cuss. She sucked the cut, rocking back onto her heels. From the overpass, Marc sent up an alarm of frantic barks.
Misty turned and saw the cruiser coming down Clairmont. Luckily, Marc had spotted it before the police spotted Val and Eric.
Eric answered Marc with more barking. Fangs bared, he twisted around, snapping at the air. Val dropped to all fours and turned back into a wolf. The pair ran east. Bounding down the embankment, Marc ran west. All of them were on the opposite side of the street from Misty.
She tried shifting one more time, but it was no use. Giving up, she watched her pack scatter in different directions. Marc vanished behind a twenty-four-hour pharmacy. Eric decided to cross Clairmont and double back. Horns blared and the flow of traffic closed immediately behind him, leaving Val stranded on the far side. They were werewolves. They just weren’t competent werewolves.
The cruiser pulled into the diner parking lot just as the couple in love pulled out. Misty slipped behind the building. A single bulb burned above the rear door. Misty inspected her hurt thumb and stomped her tanker boots against the cold.
Listening to the Friday-night clamor, Misty waited. After a minute, she heard Marc howl. He was a couple blocks west. Zipping her jacket up above her mouth and stuffing her hands in her pockets, she trudged off to find her brother.
Daniel’s friends wanted to know everything about Cornell. He gave them one- and two-word answers until the conversation finally drifted to their own applications at different colleges. It was past midnight when they left, sidling past two policemen coming in.
Daniel drove Angie home. On the way, she asked, “Why didn’t you want to tell them about Cornell?”
“I was going to tell them. I just . . . I don’t know.”
“Is it that SAT thing?”
Angie sighed. “Daniel, you got into Cornell. So what if you had to hustle a little? I promise, everybody up there had to hustle somehow to get there. Including the teachers, probably.”
“Everybody’s happy for you. Me, the guys, your parents. Just be happy too, okay?”
“I promise.” He pulled to the curb in front of her house. The porch light burned, but the windows were dark. Their good night kiss turned into open mouths and teasing tongues. “Let’s go up to your room,” Daniel whispered.
Angie snorted. “My parents are asleep, not dead.”
“We’ll be real quiet.” He kissed her again. “Two little mousies.”
They stole through the kitchen and down the hall one careful, creaking step at a time. Angie’s shoulders trembled with held-in laughter as they passed her parent’s closed door.
In her bedroom, she put on music to cover the squeak of mattress springs. While a woman crooned in a studio-polished voice, Daniel pulled Angie’s sweater and T-shirt up over her head. They had hushed, fumbling, giggling sex. Hands covered mouths and mouths tasted warm skin. Sweat filmed Daniel’s back in the cool January night. By the time the CD came to the last track, he was reaching for his jeans.
“Stay awhile,” Angie mumbled.
“I need to get home.”
“No. Just a few minutes.” Lying in bed, she reached for him.
Daniel kissed her fingertips, then her lips. “Sorry. I love you.”
Mad he wouldn’t stay, she answered, “Love you too, jerk.”
Daniel pulled on his shirt and didn’t say anything else. Stripey, Angie’s stuffed tiger, lay in the windowsill above her bed. She’d had him for years, the nap of his fur worn smooth. Daniel tucked him into bed beside Angie.
“Congratulations on Cornell,” she said. The soft words dripped venom.
“Thanks. Good night.” Daniel gently shut her door and crept back downstairs. On his way through the kitchen, he noticed the box of raspberry strudel sitting on the counter. Cutting himself a piece, he slipped into the moaning cold and jogged to his car.
Daniel had been accepted by Cornell. The Ivy League. Everybody was happy for him, even if they weren’t surprised. Since he was seven, people had seen something special in Daniel. He was always the bright one, the determined one, the shooting star who could rise above Birmingham and go on to great things.
When Daniel was in eighth grade, though, his dad lost his job with Pfizer. Then Mack was born. With three kids and nearly broke, his parents realized it wasn’t enough to let Daniel’s destiny unfold on its own.
Once his dad was working again, they nickle-and-dimed together the fee for a professional college consultant. Through high school, Daniel took advanced placement courses, volunteered as a peer tutor and at church, played shooting guard on the basketball team, and was a student representative before he could drive himself to the functions. He busted his ass, and when it came time to pick a college, he could have walked into almost any school he wanted.
But the brochure from Cornell had a satiny finish. It didn’t feel like paper, almost like fabric. Inside were photographs of neoclassical buildings in far-off Ithaca, New York, their bluestone faces twisted up to spires and pierced by arches. The towers of Cornell seemed both somber and completely weightless.
Daniel’s dad had never finished college. As a drug rep, he worked his natural charm to keep the family’s bellies full. The army had sent Daniel’s mom through nursing school. They paid the bills on time and had money left over for a few comforts, but Cornell lay beyond their dreams. Only shooting stars could ever reach it.
Daniel’s standardized test scores might have weighed him down, though. After two rounds, they were okay but would hardly make anybody’s eyes bulge. Reading up on the tests, his parents learned that, if Daniel had attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, he could take them untimed, practically guaranteeing better scores. After working in Birmingham’s sprawling medical industry for years, they knew plenty of “candy men,” shady doctors who’d write prescriptions for Vicodin or OxyContin for anybody paying in cash. Getting a psychiatrist to say Daniel had ADHD was a phone call away.
“Well? You have trouble concentrating sometimes, don’t you?” his mom had asked one night after Daniel’s brothers were in bed. He and his parents sat in the living room, all three of them pretending to watch a Law & Order rerun.
“You’re a nurse, and you just figured out I have ADHD?”
She sighed. “I haven’t figured out anything. We just want to find out if you do.”
“It’s not cheating, Daniel. You still have to answer the same questions, right? And even if it was, people go to doctors for a lot worse reasons than this.”
“I don’t give a crap what other people do.”
“We can’t make you do this if you don’t want to.” His dad glared at the TV. “But you’re not a kid anymore. And honesty counts for a lot less in the adult world than you seem to think.”
Daniel was about to snap back, but his dad stood up and walked out of the room. Daniel realized this was making his parents sick. They knew it was wrong, but they wanted him to escape the crumbling city he’d grown up in. They had worked even harder toward that dream than he had. He couldn’t let them down.
A week later, Daniel went to see a therapist. While his mom sat in the waiting room, the doctor asked him questions. Was it ever hard staying on task? Did he get frustrated easily? He gave the answers he was expected to, even though it made him nauseous. Thirty minutes later, he walked out with a signed form declaring him a sufferer of ADHD.
When they got home, Daniel’s car was missing. His dad pulled it into the driveway that evening, and Daniel had a new sound system. MP3 compatible; 180-watt amplifier; and dual-coil, custom-fit subwoofers in the trunk. His parents wanted him to have something nice when he went off to college.
He retook the SATs, untimed this round, and did just as well as everybody knew he would. He mailed his application off to Cornell and got their answer a few days after Christmas. When he showed the acceptance letter to his parents, they went ecstatic. His mom found somebody to cover for her at work so they could go out and celebrate.
His dad had probably been right. Angie, too. Nobody got anywhere without a little hustle. Still, the rush of pride Daniel had spent years working for never came. While everyone around him beamed, Daniel just felt exhausted and kind of pissed off.
Now, after a night filled with friends and laughter, the early morning quiet made his tangled thoughts worse. Finishing the raspberry strudel, Daniel worked the green-glowing controls of his new stereo until every rhyme Freetown spit made the steering wheel shudder under his hands.
Passing the diner again, Daniel crossed beneath the overpass on his way home. Below it, three of the support pillars bore the same graffiti tag: a stylized wolf’s head, tongue lolling, fangs displayed. Daniel gave the leering wolves a quick glance. Drawn in profile, they watched cars curving off the expressway onto Clairmont. Then Daniel started thinking about Cornell again and forgot all about them.
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