Shouldering my bag, I walked down the cracked sidewalk, the bus roaring past me. I was the only kid apart from Janie Crane, a loud grade three girl with red pig tails, that lived on Winchester street. Most of the people who lived in the tall true Montana rach style houses backing the woods were elderly people.
Our gate was left unlatched as usual, the old black Chevvy Dad drove nowhere to be seen. Opening the door, I stepped inside. The mail had been stacked up on the counter, split into two little piles. There was tell-tale signs of somebody making a grilled cheese and bacon sandwich, Dad's favorite.
So he had been home today. Surprising, considering he worked out in Chinook and had to drive nearly an hour back and forth. Flipping through the mail, I found three for me. Reply letters from colleges.
It was hard to think I'd be leaving Pine River ten months. I'd applied far, far way. It would be nice to get out of the small town and all the memories it held. To start over again.
Tucking them in my sweater pocket, I dumped my bag, walking to the stairs. Buddy, our border collie, lay at the top, black tail whipping excitedly. At the top, I paused to rub his ears. For a dog that was supposed to be active and energetic, Buddy was pretty laid back, and I was thankful for that. Nobody had time for a crazy dog in our family.
No sooner had I torn open the first letter the phone started to ring. "Hello?"
"Paige! Good to hear ya, kid!" I recognized the Boston drawl. Uncle Tony, dad's only brother. He hadn't called in ages, too busy working as a policeman or whatever he was. "Is your old man home?"
"No, he's out right now. Can I take a message?"
Uncle Tony paused. "Uh, yeah. You can. Tell him we need him up north. There's been an incident in Fort Benton."
"An incident?" I frowned, twirling the phone cord. What kind of incident would they need Dad for?
"A boy got mauled. Officials won't say what, but we know it was something big."
Something like a wolf. I heard it in his tone. My stomach dropped. Fort Benton wasn't far away at all. If the wolves up there had gone bad...
"It's nothing to worry about, Paige. Probably just a loner looking for an easy meal."
It didn't sound that way to me. If there was a disease in the wolves, almost certainly they would come here to check our population. And if they found a trace...no. No way they'd kill them all.
Carter's comment on the bus came back to me. If it were up to me, I'd have 'em all stuffed and mounted. Feeling sick, I nodded. "Okay. Okay, I'll tell him."
He obviously didn't hear the panic in my voice, because he let out a hearty chuckle. "That's my girl. Tell him we set out on Wednesday. He might want to bring his gun."
When I woke up, I had no idea where I was. It was dark, cold, and damp. I was also aching like I'd taken a hit from a few cemi trucks right in the ribs. Trees formed a dark canopy above, spreading in every direction I could see. Fear closed around my throat. Where in the hell was I?
Standing up, I wrapped my arms around myself. "Hello!" I called, stumbling forward. Whatever had happened to me, it had left me nude in the process. Had some creep abducted me and stuck me in the forest? Was I being hunted right now?
Scared, I began to run, not caring which direction I was going on. Something was on repeat in my brain. A single message. Get away get away get away get-
"Agh!" The dull pain under my ribs flared, slashing through my side. It curled up my ribs, spreading over my back. "Agh! Help me! Help-ah!" Shaking and jerking, I crumbled, my knees suddenly too flimsy to hold me up. My skin burned like someone had set a match to it, my fingers clenching and unclenching madly. Looking for a purchase on something, I grasped wildly.
The pain mounted and mounted, finally exploding. A weird sensation spread through me, a snapping and cracking under my skin. The hair on the back of my neck stood up, a shaky growl emitting between my clamped teeth. A growl?
"Ah," I cried, but the sound wasn't human. Pausing, I looked around. Why was I suddenly so short? Why...
It was like somebody had flipped the empty switch on my brain. Everything was blanking and slipping away, leaving me with strange, animalistic thoughts. Josh, I thought, panting. My name is Josh.
As the moon peaked over the trees, I felt that last desperate thought fade. My mind was empty, and there was only one urge there.
Find the others.
Heading south, I loped into the trees, not noticing I was carrying myself on four paws. I also didn't notice the pale grey wolf watching me from the trees, his lip curled back. If I had been human, I would have known he was the one who had sank his teeth into my calf and dragged me into the trees.
He was the reason why I was a monster.
Sure enough, it was on the six o'clock news.
Sitting beside me, mopping up the last bits of cheese from his slice of pizza, Dad froze. I set my book down, staring with horror at the screen. An image of a highschool with police tape streaked across it filled the screen, the caption BOY ATTACKED AT LOCAL SCHOOL written in bold letters at the bottom.
A young reporter stood beside a school bus sign, filling the audience in on the details. "Yesterday at three p.m., local boy Josh Dawson was attacked by an what was described to be a large, pale dog-like animal. We spoke to the wild life branch earlier today, and they have come to a conclusion of what the boy's attacker was."
The news report switched to a grump looking man in a police uniform. "We have recovered hair from the young man's body, and it is indeed a wolf. There was no trace of disease on it, but we believe it is a form of rabies-"
Dad pushed the off button, the screen melting to black. "So that's what Tony was talking about. This isn't good."
I looked at him, heart hammering. "So what happens now? You aren't going to kill them, are you?"
Dad looked pained, fiddling with the corner of his plate. "We really don't have a choice, Paiger. If the wolves are attacking humans, well, that's dangerous. People could get hurt."
I shook my head. "That boy to have tormented the wolf or something. They're peaceful, Dad!"
He took another drink of his coffee, grey eyes dark. "Well, something has to have changed. You got to understand, Paige. If the disease has that wolf, it's more than likely the disease is here too."
My stomach twisted. No. Not my wolves. "No!" I yelled, throwing my book to the side. Buddy looked up in alarm, chew toy discarded. "You can't shoot them! What if they're clean? We could dart them and do tests-"
Standing up, he dumped his mug in the sink, tossing the greasy plate in the trash can. "Too much money and too little time. C'mon, it's time for bed." He flicked the lights off, leaving me in the dark.
I felt the lump in my throat tighten, my hands balling into fists. No, they couldn't shoot my wolves.
There had to be a way.