The bus thundered over the potholes, scattering rain water over the cracked pavement. Beside me, headphones blaring the latest rap single, my best friend and un-twin Lizzie sat. We had been best friends since preschool, when the bus that ran down Evergreen road had broke down and I had to spend an afternoon out in the rain with her and Bobby Zimmerman waiting for the tow-truck.
Sighing, I looked out the window. Summer had blurred by all too fast, the leaves slowly melting into yellow, the grass frosting in the mornings. We had only been in school for a week, yet I already missed the freedom and relaxation of summer. Outside my window, Lake Winchester was a silvery plate, the clouds floating across the even surface.
"Did you finish those Language questions?" Lizzie yelled over her music, tapping the beat with a chewed pencil. Unlike me, Lizzie was a bit of a slacker, and cared more about her job DJ'ing on the only radio station within thirty miles than the condition of her grades.
I nodded, fishing in my backpack. Tossing them to her, I rested my head against the foggy window. Mrs. Black, our elderly teacher, wouldn't take the time to notice that it would be odd for Lizzie to hand something in on time. She would just be happy there was something passed in like always.
Leaning over the back of our seat, his brown hair flopped in his eyes, Carter Snow appeared. With his warm amber eyes and big crooked smile, it was easy to say he was one of the best looking guys in our grade. Most girls had a crush on him, and he knew it.
"Ladies," he said smoothly, his southern drawl extremely evident. Lizzie dug her elbow into my side, raking her fingers through her hair. I rolled my eyes, ignoring him. Carter was okay, but I had lost all respect for him a few years ago when he turned into an egotestical jerk. Lizzie assumed I still had a thing for him, and was always trying to play match maker with us.
Truth was, I didn't know who I was waiting for. I just was.
"Did you make the basketball team?" Lizzie asked, adjusting the zipper on her leather jacket. There was another thing she and I differed in. I wasn't one for the low-cut tops and tank tops two sizes too small. I was more of a hoodie girl, and I liked it that way.
He smiled. "Sure did. I'm the captain again this year," shifting his weight, he turned towards me. "How about you, Pay? You trying out this year?" Carter and I had been quite the sight in sophomore year, captains of the boy's and girl's basketball teams and dating at the same time. Basketball was the one thing I always fell back on. I was good at it, too.
I shrugged, meeting his eyes breifly. "I suppose. I might take up something else." He cocked an eyebrow. "I was thinking about joining-"
The words never got out. Instead, the bus ground to a halt, brakes complaining loudly. Benjie Tucker looked up the row, trying to see the commotion. "Look!" He cried, jabbing his finger at the front dash where our driver, Stanley, was cursing under his breath. I craned my neck, peering over Carter's mop of brown hair.
Standing on the road, legs locked like it had just seen it's death-which, judging by the closeness of the bus, it nearly had-was a wolf. In a major city, this would have been news. In Pine River, it was just an annoyance.
The bus driver leaned heavily on the horn, inching the bus forward. The wolf, a dark grey one with black rings around his eyes, lept to the side. The bus roared around it, the wolf's dark haunches disappearing into the woods. I think I recognized that one.
"Stupid wolves," Carter grumbled, eyes flicking to mine. "If it were up to me, I'd have them all stuffed and mounted." I clenched my jaw, ignoring the jab. The wolves basically lived in my back yard, reappearing in the summer and disappearing in the winter. I thought they were beautiful. The town didn't share my view.
Lizzie yawned, stuffing her iPod back into her crammed pack. The bus had turned off the main road, jolting to a stop in front of Stonewall High. We unloaded in pairs, walking towards the low-built maroon building. Stonewall had been re-painted in the summer, but it still looked old as dirt, which it probably was. Nothing was new in Pine River.
Peter sat the table, shakily spooing himself some soup Loretta had made the day before. He had slipped into one of Joey's old shirts, wearing a pair of frayed jeans. Besides Peter and myself, nobody else was home.
"Where...where is everyone?" Peter asked, kneading the table cloth. Leaning on the counter, I watched him, looking for any signs of the change. He'd been holding stable for the past few hours. My guess was he was done for the year.
"Out," I shrugged, fiddling with the nobs on the old radio. The only station ever on was the weather network, and nobody minded. Our humanity depended on it.
Peter set his spoon down. "Ben, don't lie to me. How many others?" He nodded in the direction of the door, where the frayed clipboard hung. That thing could spell life or death.
Written neatly in one long row was a list of twenty seven names. Each name had the words Back and Gone written beside them, with a date penned in next to each word. The first date, beside Back meant when the person had came back from the woods. When the cold had wormed them out of their pelts and dumped them into their frail human bodies. The second date, beside Gone, showed when the person had fallen back into their wolf form, the heat pulling them back into the woods with a cruel hand.
This year, only nine names had a date beside Back. Peter, Loretta, Janice, Adrian, Cameron, Summer, Dean, Mikhail, and myself.
Everyone else hadn't tured up. Yet. Or maybe they won't. Maybe it's the year...
I shook my head, ridding the thought. No, this would not be the only people. Joey and Mitch would turn up any minute now. Susan would come bursting through the door, toting six shopping bags as usual.
"Nine," I sighed, "nine of us."
Peter blanched. "Do you think...is that...are we..."
"No. Someone else will turn up before supper time. It's pretty cold out there." My eyes drifted to the large window in the den, spilling pale sunlight. A blood red leaf was stuck to it, slowly sliding down. If I tried, I knew I could pick out the shapes milling between the trunks, waiting unknowingly for the change. Hoping for the change.
But I didn't want to. I knew damn well I should be out there with them, speaking in colors and pictures of the mind, robbed of all the things that made me human.
This year was supposed to be my last year.