It was supposed to be one of the happiest days of my life. I was supposed to be excited.
Yet the weight of what was to come on this day, my thirteenth birthday, was a consuming void of anxiety and depression.
There were expectations I had to meet. Expectations I had to live up to if my father and mother were ever going to accept me.
Birthdays were a trial, or at least mine was. I couldn’t exactly recall a time when my parents celebrated me. Not that they were fond of me outside of my birthday either.
Instead, I was foisted off on my grandparents, a small miracle that I grew to appreciate the older I got. They were the ones to raise me, to teach me, to love me.
Like many of my other birthdays, the morning started overcast and gray.
Rain spat down from the sky and against the windows. The sound of it splattering against the house was soothing, a balm to my frayed nerves.
I wasn’t nervous about my birthday. Rather, it was what was supposed to happen. Everyone—my father, mother, my family, our neighbors, our pack—was expecting me to go out there and shift for the very first time.
Today I would take my rightful place as the alpha heir.
That was, if I could complete shifting into my wolf.
I ate alone, an unremarkable breakfast that I wished I hadn’t bothered with.
It was a roll of thunder that shook the house followed by distant voices trying to shout above it that clued me in to the danger about to present itself.
Outside, the rain was heavier, or maybe it grew by the time I reached our front porch. People of the pack milled and murmured, but I couldn’t make out what anyone said.
Then, one by one, they spotted me and grew silent. Despite the torrential downpour, everyone was there. Adults and kids and my grandfather.
By his side was Jacob, haughty and proud. He was new to the pack, an orphan my father had taken in. My father doted on Jacob and treated him like a son.
It made me jealous.
I wanted to step back, return to my room, to sleep.
I wish I had.
But I was helpless. I had to do what he demanded.
One step forward, into squelching mud, and the crowd moved away.
“Dayton, she’s not ready,” my grandfather pleaded. They looked a lot alike but where Grandfather's eyes were filled with warmth, Father’s held a biting coldness.
“She has to be. She will be. No child of mine is without a wolf.” My father waited expectantly as I approached.
“What’s going on?” My voice was barely above a whisper, and it faltered when my grandfather looked at me. There was fear in his eyes. Desperation.
“Please, son. She’s your daughter.” At Grandfather’s words, my father’s face twisted into a cruel smile.
“If June is worthy, she will shift. She will fight. Like all Alphas before her.” Jacob was already shifting into his wolf. He had Alpha blood, like me, and recently had come into his wolf on his own thirteenth birthday.
“It’s too soon.”
I didn’t know where my grandmother was that morning, but Mother was off to the side, a silent spectator with a look of indifference. When she spoke, though, her words were just as cold as my father’s. “Not if it’s meant to be. Every respectable Alpha shifts on their thirteenth birthday.”
“You don't understand. Neither of you ever did.” Grandfather crowded my father, begging.
“Enough!” Another roar of thunder accompanied my father’s shout, and he pushed Grandfather to the ground.
“Stop!” I was standing before them now, helpless and terrified. Jacob’s wolf stood menacingly to the side. My father turned on me, his expression full of malice and eager excitement.
“It’s time, Juniper. You know what day it is. Shift and fight for your title with Jacob.”
I tried and tried, calling for my wolf, for any sign of the change, but I was stuck, frozen.
The click of a gun sounded, more deafening than the rain or thunder. I saw Grandfather wince as the barrel pressed against his head. Father’s eyes glinted cruelly, digging the weapon into my grandfather’s temple.
“Shift or I’ll kill him.” His hand didn’t shake. Didn’t tremble. It was steady, and the crowd watched silently.
I pleaded with them, and with my father. I pleaded with my inner beast.
Then the gun went off.
Heart racing and soaked with sweat, I shot up from the bed, the sound of the bang still echoing in my head.
Another dream reliving the worst moment of my life.
You’re safe now, June. It’s over.
Starlet. I sighed in relief, comforted by her words. My heartbeat slowed, no longer trying to gallop its way out of my chest. ~I wish I didn’t have to relive it.~
I wish I had come to you sooner.
Starlet came to me after that horrible day five years ago, though we still hadn’t completed our shift. My wolf never told me why, and she still wouldn’t. I didn’t care though. I had her—a dear friend when I needed one the most—and that was all that mattered.
A soft knock disturbed us, and the door opened.
My grandmother stepped inside, smiling when she saw me up. The years had been kind to her, but the stress of losing her mate those five years ago had left its mark in the lines around her eyes and the constant droop of her shoulders.
I was so sure she would blame me for that morning. The devastation on her face when she saw Grandfather dead on the ground convinced me that I had lost her too. Her scream had startled my father enough for him to retreat.
After a while, Grandmother had come to me and wrapped me in her arms. She took me away to her home, and that was where I’d stayed for the past five years.
I was terrified to leave, so sure my father would repeat what he’d done to Grandfather to me. Together we decided it would be best for me to stay tucked away safely until, well, something pushed me to leave.
“Happy birthday, June.” She shuffled along creaky floorboards. In her hands was a small cake with candles flickering on top. “Make a wish, baby girl.”
I smiled and closed my eyes, concentrating.
A breeze swept through the room. Curtains shifted, and the door slammed shut. When I opened my eyes again, the candles were extinguished and Grandmother had an admonishing look and windswept hair.
“You said I should practice using them!”
“Magic isn’t meant to be used that way. Elemental powers especially.” She scolded me as she smoothed her hair.
With a thought, I reignited the candles, tiny flames rekindled with a spark of magic. I pursed my lips and blew them out normally, smiling innocently as Grandmother narrowed her eyes at me.
“Okay, okay.” I laughed, relenting. “I’m sorry.”
Grandmother’s expression softened, a smile slipping onto her lips.
My magical powers had shown themselves gradually over the years I’d lived here. The first time I’d shown signs of elemental magic had been when I’d woken with a fever and promptly steamed the bathroom up in an inordinate amount of time.
Grandmother took it in stride, despite it being another unnatural phenomenon concerning me. “It’s because you’re special, Juniper. You’re going to do great things, baby girl,” she’d said to me when I came to her crying.
“Is it raining again today?” She nodded, but I wasn’t surprised.
It always rained on my birthday.
“I’ll be out today. I have to help Tabatha with something at her house.” She brushed the hair from my face, clucking and worrying. “You’ll be fine if I leave for a few hours?”
I smiled softly. “Go help Tabatha out of whatever mess she’s caused this time.”
I had a routine, despite, or because of, being stuck at home. Breakfast, schoolwork, as much exercise as I could manage, free time, and then dinner. Evenings were usually spent with Grandmother and whatever current show she had been sucked into.
Today, though, I found myself staring out into the backyard. Sometimes I longed to step outside into the heat of the sun or the cool splash of rain or to feel the wind’s caress. The longing had been unbearable at first, but I’d learned to repress it.
At least, I thought I had.
It wasn’t until I was halfway through breakfast that morning that I realized it was Starlet’s urging, pushing me to go.
We should go out today.
I froze, the spoonful of cereal stuck halfway into my mouth.
Starlet, please. You know we can’t.
We have to, June. We need to.
We can’t! What’s wrong with you?
I feel… it’s just time. It’s not right to stay locked away. Not for a wolf. Not for a human. I could feel Star’s desperation, a well of frustration bubbling to the surface.
And honestly? I wanted to get out too.
It’s too dangerous. What if someone sees us? I asked, but my words were hollow.
I don’t think many will be out today.
Starlet was right, of course. It was gray, and the weather was awful. Most everyone in the pack would choose to stay inside, right?
We could take a walk through the woods. You know you’ll be hard to spot in there.
I didn’t need much more prompting.
There was a bite in the air outside, but the rain had let up. Despite that, I hustled from the back porch to the cover of the trees.
Grandmother’s house was isolated and looked out to the forests surrounding our pack. Hardly anyone ventured near here, and I had my suspicions Grandmother was behind that.
Walking through the trees was liberating. It was peaceful, quiet except for the leaves and twigs crunching and snapping beneath my feet. Birds lazily chirped from their perches above.
I wish we could feel the sun.
It was a wonderful thought. Poor Starlet had only a taste of the outside world before she was hidden away in that house with me.
Can’t you do something, June? She was pleading with me.
I wanted to. Starlet was my best friend. She’d kept me company through the worst parts of these past five years. She kept me sane and was one of the few who truly loved me.
But what could I do? It wasn’t like I could control the weather.
I’m sorry, Star. I sighed.
I felt Star deflate, her heart breaking, mine shattering along with it.
I closed my eyes, a deep sigh deflating my lungs.
What kind of life was this? We had to sneak around in our own backyard for fear of being seen. We had to risk our lives for a taste of the wind, the feeling of the sun on our skin.
Suddenly, the wind picked up, rustling the trees and disturbing the birds.
My eyes flew open as the clouds began to shift and clear, and in their place was the sun.
Brilliant and warm and bright.
I stood there, transfixed, soaking it in. I felt Star unfurl within me like a flower blooming, her spirits soaring to the sky.
I couldn’t help but laugh. Maybe this small bit of good luck was the world’s birthday present to me.
My heart jumped as I came crashing back to reality.
The snap of a branch, a loud thump, had me whirling around in time to see a stranger, looming and unfamiliar.