Sam and I lived fairly even lives. It wasn't as if we didn't love the exciting or thrilling moments in life, but we both believed in a balance between those moments and quieter ones. Watching the sun set. Driving along an even road until it runs out. Being together.
So it was a bit of a shock to wake up at 9:00 PM, headache gone but mouth dry and eyes drooping. I felt as I'd I had been asleep for a century, and maybe I had. Sam was lying next to me, but I knew he was awake.
"Morning." I said, raspy and dry. He chuckled and turned his body toward mine; he usually drifted away in the night. I pulled him closer.
"I have work in the morning." He stated. I didn't entirely understand, until I realized that it was, in fact, 9:00 PM. We wouldn't sleep again, not after our afternoon hibernation. I sighed a sigh that told him I was sorry, told him I was happy, told him that I loved him.
"I can't stay in bed anymore." He announced, and rolled from the bed. His black hair stuck up in odd directions, bringing a grin to my face.
He offered his hand, all gentleman-like and not at all like Sam. I took it, and curtsied as he pulled me from the bed. Then he connected his lips with mine, until one of us had to breathe.
"Are you hungry?" I asked him, suddenly realizing the ache in my stomach. Had it been only this morning my stomach had refused the omelet? It felt like it had been days. Never had I spent so long in bed. Of course, I'd never been so drunk.
"Starving." He nodded, and then pulled on a big, grey sweatshirt. He was cold, like always. It was a constant debate: the temperature of the house. He was always freezing, insisting that I turn the heat up. So up I'd turn it and within minutes I was sweating, begging to turn it down. Up, down, up, down. I'm sure the electric company was baffled by our bipolar temperature shifts. Cole never minded, though, usually rolling his eyes at our simple argument. He didn't mind much at all, really. Whether that was good or bad, I wasn't sure yet.
"Let's get Chinese." I suggested as we stomped down the stairs, our steps heavier than usual. Sam turned back with a surprised expression on his face.
"Chinese?" He asked, and I nodded. "You want Chinese?" He repeated. I nodded. Again.
"It just sounds so good." I shrugged. I had never particularly enjoyed Chinese food, even though Sam loved it. My parents used to shove leftovers in the fridge, noodles and egg rolls and unnamed meats. But I'd never loved it, at least not until now. But now, all I could think of was hot, steaming food.
"All right." Sam laughed, and then mimicked my shrug. I could tell that he was surprised, but he would never shoot down an opportunity to eat an egg roll.
I slid on my coat, although it was oddly warm for March. But I hadn't been outside all day and Minnesota loved surprises. Sam grabbed his keys from the counter and then his wallet, but paused before following me out the door.
"Cole!" He called into the house, and it emanated through the hollow rooms. "We're grabbing food. Do you want to come along?"
There was a response I didn't hear, and then something more from Sam I couldn't understand. Finally he tugged the door shut and headed toward the car, just in time for another mighty rumble of my stomach.
"Is he coming?" I asked, sliding into the passenger seat. I pushed away a guitar pick and some napkins, and shoved them into the console.
"He's 'meditating', I guess." Sam replied. He slid the keys into the ignition with a loud roar from the engine. I almost asked to drive, but then he was off and down the drive before I could even offer.
Sam drove well, but in a different way than me. He liked to go slowly, like he was admiring everything as it passed. Trees, houses, highways. I'd asked him once why he drove so slowly, and he told me that he didn't want to miss anything. But what could he miss? Nothing that I could fathom. Flat land led into thick woods that held nothing but old secrets and poison ivy. And although I liked to pretend to be oblivious, I think something inside of me always knew. He was watching for the wolves.
Tonight was no different than his usual driving habits. Slow, easy turns that matched the soft song leaking from the radio. Part of me laughed and told him to "Speed it up, old man". But the other half of me, the instinctual one, turned an ear and joined him to listen as we passed the woods. We both found silence.
There was a part of me that longed for something beyond Mercy Falls. Watching the plain landscape rush by in a blur made me realize it yet again. I wanted more than the college in Duluth or the occasional visit to my parents or the greasy diners in town. Sam wanted more, too. He'd told me, late at night when secrets were easier to share. There was more to this world than his small job at the bookstore, even a full time position, he usually laughed. Was he happy with this life? I'm not sure. He walked and talked and sang like there was no reason to be unhappy, but sometimes I saw it in his eyes. But then I was reminded that I was with him, for as long as it could ever be, and maybe that was enough. Plus, we were already in town and I couldn't linger on the thought any longer.
China Palace was a small, grimy building with a blinking sign that advertised lunch specials and free refills. Sam sometimes brought it home wrapped in white boxes with a fortune cookie he took too seriously. I never liked it, not enough to find my way there. But tonight I could think of nothing better than China Palace. It sounded so good. The kind of good Isabelle would turn her nose at as she listed the reasons it will give me heart attack or a rash or something. She was probably eating sushi in California, with sunglasses on while she impressed waiters. I smiled at the thought.
"I'm thinking maybe I should write this down." Sam said as we walked across the pothole-pocked parking lot, my hand in his. "Grace's First Time." He added, outlining it in the air like it was some big idea. I rolled my eyes.
"Don't make me change my mind." I warned him. We stepped onto the crooked sidewalk and entered the building with a rush of warm air and greasy food.
Sam plucked a paper menu from the counter and held it up for us both to see. China Palace was the kind of place that had disposable menus and a counter to order at. Just a few old tables and metal chairs, the occasional poster or framed, stereotypical, oriental artwork.
At the counter sat an old woman, her gray hair to match her thin eyes. Sam smiled at the sight. He was probably thinking about something poetic like I always imagined he did, but all I could think of was food, food, food.
"What are you getting?" I asked him, his eyes still scanning the menu in the dim light of the restaurant.
"Egg drop soup." He replied easily. He probably had the right idea, considering how empty both of our stomachs were. Mild was the best choice. But a long order later, we left with his soup and my plate of spicy noodles and chicken, enough to feed a small family.
He only watched as I inhaled the noodles within the confines of his car, carefully wrapping each noodle around my fork. I took a break only for a breath and a sip of his Coke.
"Hungry?" He asked with raised brows. I nodded eagerly. It felt like I'd never been hungrier.
"Isabelle called." He said then, like maybe he'd just remembered or maybe he was waiting for the right time to tell me. My stomach dropped at his tone; something in his voice seemed alarmed. But then he shook his head. "Looking for Cole, and you."
Cole. I had to admit that it was nice having him around since his long winter absence, although short compared to his fellow wolves. He'd changed back the first time in Februrary, completely unheard of according to Sam, especially considering he'd only changed right before December. He shifted back and forth for a couple of weeks before he stuck for good right before March. We'd worked on the lodge all winter and it could have been a nice enough place for him to stay. But when he showed up at our doorstep, Beck's doorstep, half naked and covered in mud, we let him in and that was it. An unspoken agreement that he would stay here, with us. For a few days he was shaky. He organized the towels once and then again. He watched the static television channel all afternoon. He tried to shift back. But then he was stuck in his tall, blonde, Cole body and he accepted it. He was just him; it just us. Me, Sam, and Cole St. Clair.
"I'll call her later." I responded idly. I'm sure Isabelle was pleased to hear Cole had turned back. It was hard enough to miss someone who stalked the woods, but at least they were there, in a way. Off in California, she couldn't hear his howls, let alone see his face. She was utterly alone. His return relieved her.
It had been a year since Isabelle had left, only a little less. In that time, I realized, I'd graduated high school, started college, and married Sam. Had it only been that long? Before any of this-Sam, Cole, all of it-I went to school and cooked supper and read long books. That was my life, plain and quiet. I had never shifted, and Sam was just a wolf. It was that thought that intrigued me the most. Two years ago, Sam was the yellow-eyed wolf who saved me. He had no name. Just a face and a longing howl. How did I ever live without him? I couldn't fathom a life without the matters we faced. It just didn't make sense anymore.
But then maybe it could. Make sense, I mean. Because since I'd pushed the infected blood into my veins and I miraculously woke up again, I was just Grace. No more wolf, at least for a while. I attended college and got married, and those things should have justified my normality. But something lingered in my brain, the beginnings of a dangerous idea: that you never truly stopped being a wolf.
It usually came late in the night, when I'd wake up from a dream I couldn't remember and I felt it. My bones ached, my stomach quivered, and I couldn't make sense of any thoughts. I was not a human, but I was not a wolf. I was something in between that should never exist. And then, like clockwork, things became clear and it was over. I was me.
I told Sam after it had happened a third time, and he responded with scared, yellow eyes. The truth was that he was more afraid of losing me than I was of losing myself. So he set the thermostat to 90 degrees and picked at his guitar until his fingers were raw and I wished I wouldn't have told him.
"Grace," Sam said then, washing away my thoughts and bringing me back to the present. I was back in the car, my plate balanced in my lap. I turned my eyes to him.
"I-um," He stuttered. Like he couldn't find his words. Sam always knew what to say, and so his inability to find the right words both frightened and intrigued me.
"I got a letter yesterday." He released finally, and then met my eyes. He looked at me like he was waiting for some confirmation.
"A letter." I repeated, as to make sure I'd heard him correctly. It sounded harmless enough. I couldn't think of the last envelope-related death I'd heard of, though I didn't tell him this. Something told me he wouldn't find it as funny as I did.
"From... my sister." He added nervously. Then he rubbed his eyes like he regretted saying it.
"Your sister?" I echoed. I had begun the habit of repetition, but in the moment I couldn't help it. "I didn't know-"
"I don't. I-I didn't." He cut me off. "At least I thought I didn't."
"What?" I sputtered.
"She...my mom-she was pregnant. When she went to, uh. Prison. I guess." He explained. His words were choppy and nervous, reminding me of a shy kid during an English presentation. Not at all like Sam, with his usually smooth sentences. He rubbed his hands through his hair.
I said: "Oh," because I couldn't think of a better response. If things were different and it was me who needed comfort in words, Sam would have known what to say. But I was just Grace, and all I had to offer was my quiet "Oh."
"I don't know, I guess she's, what, twelve?" He asked, but it was a rhetorical question. He didn't really need an answer. "Her parents-the people who adopted her, they wrote me. I don't know how they found me, but they did. I don't know."
I just watched, and listened.
"I feel kind of stupid now, thinking I was the only kid who had to grow up with parents in prison," He almost laughed. "Pity party's over."
I smiled, but sadly. This didn't really seem funny to me, but a smile seemed the kindest response.
"Her name's Caroline." He added finally, and then nodded. I stared forward, watching a crow waddle across the parking lot. It occasionally pecked at the ground, but otherwise seemed careless. For a moment I wished to be the crow.
"I love you." I replied then, and he finally flashed me his warm smile. I knew it wasn't enough to just say that, but I couldn't think of anything else. He didn't mind, I hoped.
We sat in silence for a while, watching the crow and thinking of another life. Or at least I was. I couldn't be sure of what Sam thought, though his hands shook as he clenched the steering wheel. I wished I knew what could save him from a life he should have never lived.
Of course to Caroline and her parents, Sam was just a boy who shared her genes. He wasn't Beck's son, or a wolf, or something I could call my own. They knew nothing of the life he lived except the one they could read in the papers. He was an anonymous orphan, or he might as well have been. I knew he wouldn't like that title.
We drove home after I lost my appetite, nothing but the road to keep our minds busy. I saw him attempt words several times, but he always paused and the thought retreated in again. By the time we pulled into the driveway, he had formed one sentence:
"I want to meet her." He said, both confident and scared. I hadn't realized it possible, but he proved it so. I agreed wordlessly, and follows him back into the house, his hand in mine.
The next day, Sam was at work and I was supposed to be at class. But my head ached and I didn't particularly like the thought of driving all that way alone. Usually I didn't mind the drive, but today I was tired and my thoughts were somewhere else.
Specifically, with the letter Sam had shown the night before. Evenly handwritten, it explained Caroline's adoptive parents delicately. Who they were, how they'd adopted her, where they were from (Duluth, oddly). I read it over, and then again. My eyes lingered especially on the ending, the two curvy names. Doug and Marie Settler. Two plain names with plain stories, but they dug at me. What if Sam had grown up with them instead of Beck? Would he go to school in Duluth and live in a square, suburban house? I couldn't imagine it. I suddenly felt very angry, and then very relieved. The former because Sam was never given the life he really deserved, even if Beck loved him, and the latter because he had. Because he was my wolf, and any other thought was too odd to bear.
I wandered around the house until Cole woke up, red faced and sweating.
"Were you out for a jog?" I asked him, but he just shook his head.
"Dreaming." He replied, "Just as taxing."
Sam wasn't due home until five, so I decided to clean myself up and head into town. I'd make a dinner, something nice that he loved. Unfortunately, the Mercy Falls supermarket was fresh out of instant macaroni, so I decided on the next best choice. Cheesecake.
I strolled down the empty aisles, occasionally plucking an ingredient or two from its spot on the shelf. By three o'clock I had collected everything I needed and began for the checkout. I loaded my car and headed back to the house.
I had fallen out of the habit of cooking, but it felt like I'd never stopped as soon as I dusted off an old cookbook and began separating ingredients. Eggs, flour, sugar. Cole ducked in occasionally, sniffing around until he was satisfied. By the time it was set on the counter and I had begun adorning it with strawberries, I heard the familiar jingle of keys at the back door.
"Grace?" Sam called, and found me in the kitchen, a surprised expression painted across his face.
"Playing hooky." I explained before he could ask it. He nodded.
"Filled in at the Food Network instead?" He asked, throwing his jacket over the chair. I grinned.
"That looks delicious." He added, and dipped his finger into the top, scraping away a strawberry. I swatted his hand away.
"Hey!" I smiled, "You'll spoil your supper."
Sam did the honors of slicing the cheesecake into wide pieces, and we stuffed ourselves full. Cole told us a story of the first time he'd ever had cheesecake in New York, how he'd choked and almost died, until the waiter stepped in and did CPR. It wasn't that funny, but we laughed and laughed. It felt good.
After dinner, or dessert, Sam picked me up from my chair and carried me like a baby to our room. I protested, hitting his arm and kicking, but he wouldn't put me down. He placed me on the bed and lowered himself over me.
"I'm so tired." He said, and I groaned.
"Don't tell me that now." I pleaded, and he laughed. His arms were warm and strong around me, and if he wasn't so visibly tired, I would have put them to use.
He collapsed next to me, his scent blowing over me. It wasn't quite like it used to be, less of the woods and more of the bookstore, and a little bit of aftershave. But he was still Sam.
He'd always be Sam.