I face my best friend, my back to the edge of the forest.
“It's not funny anymore,” she insists, glancing over my shoulder, desperately trying to insinuate that my need to come inside is greater than any sense of humor I could muster.
“I'm enjoying myself.” I grin, glancing around, as if I have a magical ability to see in the darkness. Quite frankly, the light from inside the house doesn't do much.
June, my best friend, hops from foot to foot, anxious to rescue me from... whatever danger she thinks is out here, but she can't bear to risk crossing the threshold of the doorway.
“Thea, please... I'm being serious when I tell you to get inside,” she says, her voice shaking, and not from the cool breeze.
I dance around on the spot, autumn leaves crunching under my feet.
“Phantom Wolves don't exist,” I chant, my voice carrying itself along the breeze.
June shakes her head, rubbing her arms up and down nervously.
“I swear to the Goddess that I am not coming after you when one of them snatches you and drags you away into their rape cave,” she tells me. She's not joking.
I pause, my dancing ceasing. Slowly, I turn around, the forest looming over me. It's endless, cold, dark, and I'm not even sure anything lives in there. But I can’t help myself.
“June, we need to get inside.”
“Why?” She asks nervously, watching me back my way up the porch steps cautiously.
I scream, so loud I'm sure the neighboring Pack can hear. June joins my shrills as I fall past her, straight into the house, and into the clutches of the fur rug on the floor.
She slams the door behind us, pressing her back against it.
I turn from where I’m lying face down on the ground. June looks petrified, her eyes glinting with memories of all the books on Phantom Wolves she's read. I start to laugh.
“Oh, I gotcha so good!”
Her terrified expression dissolves into one of pure anger, as she realizes I just pulled off nothing but a prank.
“I didn't see a Phantom, but I did see your face as pale as anything.” I fail to keep the humor from my voice. I stand, leveling myself with a livid June.
“You idiot! How many times have I told you? Phantom Wolves aren't something you mess with,” she growls, slapping her hand over her forehead as she attempts to gather her wits.
I smile. “Come on June, lighten up.”
She sighs deeply, trying to collect herself. Since we were children, June has always believed in the myths the older kids at school would tell us to scare us.
And most of these included Phantom Wolves.
“Lighten up? Do you want to be like Alpha Jasper?” She dares me.
I roll my eyes. Here we go.
Alpha Jasper disappeared one night and never came back. It was said he was stolen by Phantom Wolves and murdered, just like his father. And this happened years ago. No, centuries ago.
Other like-minded people believe he committed suicide, and no one was up to taking over his position as Alpha.
“Jasper wasn't murdered by Phantom Wolves, silly...” I tell her.
June narrows her eyes at me. “You're right, because he's one of them.”
I swing the dog's leash back and forth as I walk, watching the fake leather gleam in the dull light. Above my head, vicious clouds swoop in, looming over me with threatening shadows in their wake.
It makes me sigh, irritably.
The Devotion Pack is situated centrally within the Pack Quarter. It can get warm here, but the weather remains typically gloomy and dull.
It doesn’t put you in the best mood when you look up and see a darkening cloud overhead that never results in anything.
I’ve decided to return June’s stupid dog today. She’s my best friend who I visited last night. She wouldn’t let me walk home along the path that skims the edge of the infamous Phantom Forest.
Her insistence that those mythical creatures called Phantom Wolves may kidnap me and drag me back to their dens to kill me, wore me down.
She left me no choice but to take her useless Jack Russell with me.
Might as well do it today and walk home in the daylight. After last night, I decide to take the long walk through the town, rather than delve into that forest.
I nearly lost Squiggles (or whatever she calls it).
The village is pretty small. There are other townships within the Pack, but they are all miles away and desolate like our own. It’s so tight knit, no one leaves, and no one comes in.
At least, not since people started believing in Phantoms again.
Too scared to step foot out of the village, most people have accepted a simple life away from any other civilization.
Many people, including myself, have also accepted the idea of never finding our mates. It sucks. But in some people's eyes, it is safer to stay away from where Phantom Wolves are said to lurk.
I smile to myself, as I recall the myths in my head.
Jasper. He was the Alpha’s son. Centuries ago, he disappeared, and his father died soon after. Everyone thought it was Phantom Wolves, so they left the Pack.
They just got up and moved completely, whittling the population down by plenty.
Now ridiculous ideas suggest he is still alive, commanding a Pack of the night-prowling beasts as he kills the innocent in the night.
When the older kids at school told June and me these stories to scare us, I always believed he had either simply left—since his body was never found—or committed suicide elsewhere.
My simple answers helped me sleep at night.
I just won’t leave because my dad won’t. And as a nineteen-year-old living with her father, who works part-time at the local diner, I don’t see myself doing anything else anyway …
The little Jack Russell June calls her guard dog skips ahead on its little legs. I’m not sure if dogs are allowed on streets this close to stores, but no one is really around to question it.
It’s a Monday, so the small number of children in the area are at school, and everyone else is working.
“Maybe it will actually rain one day,” I say aloud, but I’m not sure if the dog really listened to my mindless words. It cocked an ear, but that was it.
I just listen to its claws click against the concrete, wishing my life was as simple as his.
Maybe it is as simple. I don’t go anywhere. My boyfriend will probably have to mark me on the grounds that neither of us are likely to find our own mates. My dad works most days.
My friend is a crazy lunatic sometimes. And I don’t have enough money to move out...
Okay, maybe it isn’t that simple.
I stare into the store windows as I pass by, wishing I could afford some of the nice clothing and what not. Instead, I am left looking at my own hazel eyes, and frumpy clothes. I need a miracle …
Suddenly, my eyes catch on something taped to the store window of a second-hand clothing shop.
It has my sneakered feet finding a stop, my eyebrows raising past the line of mussed brown hair that swoops over my forehead.
A piece of paper, newly printed with bold text, with a photo that's surprisingly eye catching. But not as eye catching as the wording.
My heart rises in my throat, as I recognise the name under the familiar photo. Jessica Holmes.
I went to school with her. She was the epitome of an introvert—kept to herself, always drawing in her notepad or reading some high fantasy novel.
I think she was better friends with the town librarian than anyone in our year.
I stare at the long mass of curly auburn hair that tumbles down her shoulders. She is quite pretty, if you look past her thick-rimmed glasses, and her eyes as cold as chunks of ice.
The traits she has, she shares with most of us in this Pack. Dark hair, hazel eyes. Average.
But she had gone missing. Missing? No one ever leaves this town.
I am a very curious person. I can't ignore it. I used to read thriller novels before I got a job, and ever since, the slightest sign of a mystery has my heart racing.
And since nothing ever happens here, I am instantly intrigued.
With a jingle of the bell atop the door, I stroll into the store, poster in hand, having left the dog tied to a pole outside.
The clerk at the desk glances up as I walk in, probably not expecting someone to visit at this time of the day.
Since everyone knows everyone here, I don’t have any trouble identifying her as Ms Morris. Elderly, cheerful, but the worst gossip in town.
And her partner in crime shifts clothes around on a nearby rack. That is Ms Slater. Both mateless. Both probably the biggest entertainment in this town.
“Thea dear! What a lovely surprise!” Ms Morris chirps, clapping her hands together at the sight of me. I force a toothy smile onto my face, wishing I was as optimistic about life as these two.
I can’t imagine how they’ve lived so long all on their own... No mate, nothing.
“I saw this in the window,” I tell her, getting straight to the point so I don’t have to be stuck with them, talking about how boring my life is.
I slide the piece of paper across the counter top, giving Ms Morris a perfect view of the missing person poster.
The moment her gaze touches the paper, her face pales, and her mouth forms a tight line. I have never seen her without a smile.
“Ah yes. Poor Jessica,” she says solemnly. I feel Ms Slater stroll up behind me, thick heels clicking against the linoleum floor.
She leans over the counter as well, drinking in the sight of the young girl.
“The poor family,” Ms Slater muses, smacking her pink-tinted lips together. “I can’t believe she would do that to herself.”
My heart stops. “Do what?”
The two ladies exchange glances. They look so similar, I realize, as they contemplate whether or not to tell me about Jessica. Both have the same fluffy white hair and sun-damaged eyes.
They dress the same, and even put on the same make-up every day. I don’t judge though, because it’s familiar. I grew up thinking they were sisters.
“She killed herself. She walked straight into the Phantom Forest and those wolves killed her,” Ms Morris exclaimed. My jaw clenched.
Just like the rest of this town, these women are one drumstick short of a picnic basket. No one has ever seen a Phantom Wolf, and here they are convincing themselves that they do actually exist.
“Did they find the body?” I ask, wondering why there would be a poster up otherwise. The women shrug at the same time.
“No... but she was a little bit strange. So we don’t doubt it was a suicide...”
I want to roll my eyes.
“And we think the wolves are getting closer to town. Maybe she got scared and gave up. It would make sense, since her mother said Jessica was a little worried about Phantoms,” Ms Slater assumes.
This isn’t the first time I have heard their ridiculous assumptions.
“Do the police know about this?” I ask, my index finger tapping impatiently against the counter top.
Glances are passed again. I mean, our police force consists of two men. A father and a son. The son, my boyfriend. Their job is hardly necessary in this town... Well, until now I suppose.
“No... But we can't think of any other way,” Ms Morris says. It takes my entire being not to sigh at the batty old women.
I could have gone anywhere in town and found reliable evidence, but instead I made the mistake of coming in here.
“She might have just left home. She was old enough,” I suggest.
“Can't be. The librarian saw her leave, and her parents never saw her come back. She was either taken, or she killed herself,” Ms Slater stated, trying to confirm the lack of information.
I take a few steps backward, leaving the poster. This is stupid …
People don't leave. Ever. And if people don't leave, then people don't mysteriously go missing. My assumption is that she left home, simple as that.
Leaving the shop, I grab the dog and start on my way again. My detective work for the day is over. I decide as I walk, I'll keep it to myself.
Because I know exactly what June will think …