Tension hung thickly in the air, as second after second passed. Izzy looked to her left and then to her right. Stacy’s hands trembled as she tried to maintain her concentration. Brian paused for just a second to wipe the sweat from his forehead. With only a few minutes remaining and everything on the line, Izzy returned to her own task, desperate to succeed.
The room had become a prison after so many years spent shut up within its dingy walls. What little sunlight that managed to penetrate the dank cell only provided a glimmer of hope to soften the unending despair.
Izzy stole another glance at Brian, but when she saw his furrowed brow screwed up in anguished concentration, she knew he was moments away from failure. Stacy, however, looked relaxed, as she sat back and stared at the ceiling.
Izzy followed her gaze, but found little solace in the hideous fluorescent lights, as they buzzed and flickered, casting a sickly white glow over the trio. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and waited for it all to be over.
“Alright, everyone. Pencils down,” Mr. Jordan said as he began collecting the students’ exams, “Please remain seated until I have gathered up all of the exam papers.”
Stacy breathed a sigh of relief and stretched her arms up above her head while Izzy leaned back in her chair and waited for Mr. Jordan to come around.
“So? How’d you do?” Stacy asked.
“Better than Brian,” Izzy said, motioning to her classmate.
Brian had been furiously scribbling answers on his exam right up until the bell, but now he sat silently with his face firmly planted on the desk.
“Brian? Are you okay?” Stacy asked him.
“Mrrghrrhfrm…” he grumbled in response.
Stacy and Izzy broke out in laughter, but were quickly silenced by Mr. Jordan’s monotone voice, “No talking until I have collected your exam, please. That includes you Isabella.”
Izzy looked at Stacy and tried to replicate their teacher’s passionless expression as best as possible while whispering his words of warning to her friend. Stacy tried to hold in her laughter, but couldn’t quite manage to keep in it, earning her a weary look from Mr. Jordan as he bent to collect her paper.
Stacy smiled sweetly at the aging teacher before quickly grabbing Izzy and Brian and running out of the classroom door, down the hall, and finally bursting into the fresh air and warm sun of the outside world.
“Ah, sweet freedom,” Izzy said, standing in the middle of the sidewalk with her head turned up towards the sun.
Stacy laughed before turning to Brian, “How did you do, Bri?”
The look of pain that crossed his face said everything the girls needed to know.
“It couldn’t have been that bad, Brian,” Izzy said, as they began walking.
Brian sighed heavily, “If I’m not in summer school, it will be a miracle.”
“But what part of the exam did you get stuck on?” Stacy asked.
“Stace, it took me five minutes just to remember my name. I’m doomed,” he lamented.
Izzy broke out in laughter again, but a sharp look from Stacy quieted her down. Izzy and Stacy had been friends since kindergarten. They knew just about everything there was to know about each other, including a complex series of facial expressions that they used to discuss everything from boys to grades.
“Brian, as your girlfriend, I will not rest until you have a grade good enough to get you into high school with me. If that means I need to help you study every day this summer, then that’s what I’ll do.”
“Thanks, Stace,” Brian said, “But I think I’m a lost cause when it comes to science.”
“You can say that again. I hope you at least know what you are doing in the romance department.”
Brian winced as he turned towards the voice of his older brother.
“Hey, Ben,” Stacy said.
“Hey, Stace. Is my little brother treating you properly?”
“Always. In fact, you could probably learn a thing or two from Brian.”
Ben laughed, “Good one, Stace. But the day I need lessons on girls from little Bri Bri will be the day I swear off girls all together.”
“Oh, good. Something to look forward to,” Izzy joked.
The trio broke into laughter as Ben struggled to find a response, but after a minute of stumbling through his words he gave up and gave credit where credit was due.
“Alright, alright, you got me Iz.”
Ben and Brian had moved to Ashchester when the girls were just starting middle school, and quickly became good friends with Izzy. It took a bit longer for Stacy to come around to the brothers’ rough way of showing their affection, but she eventually caught on.
For one year the four were inseparable, but then Ben moved on to the local high school, though he made a point of showing up every so often to check up on his younger brother.
They were both about average height and looked similar to each other, as siblings do, yet Brian took after their mother with a more angular face and relaxed disposition. While Ben tended to take after his father with a round face and shaved head.
“You ready to go, Bri?” Ben asked, motioning towards the car.
“Nice! You got the wheels back from Dad?”
“Well, not exactly…” Ben said, trailing off.
“You just took the car? Without asking?”
“Dad’s at work, and Mom is on her business trip. As long as we get it back to the house before Dad gets home, he will never know.”
“But Dad finishes work early today, Ben.”
Ben’s eyes went wide with shock.
“How was I supposed to know that?”
“Um, maybe pay attention?”
Ben rolled his eyes incredulously at his younger brother as though he had just suggested wearing a clown costume to a job interview.
“Yea, I’ll do that next time. But right now if you want a ride we need to go!”
“Stace, Iz, do you girls want a ride home?” Brian asked.
“I’m in,” Stacy said, running to catch up with Ben.
“Sorry, guys. I think I’m going to walk. My place is in the opposite direction and I don’t want Ben to get in trouble,” Izzy told them.
“Okay. Call me! We have to plan your birthday!” Stacy shouted before disappearing into the black car with Brian close behind. Ben put the front window down and shouted out a ‘good bye’ before the three of them drove off to drop Stacy at her house. Izzy watched the car speed out of sight before turning and heading for home.
Isabella, or Izzy as most of her friends called her, lived with her grandparents from her mother’s side of the family. Her parents had been killed in a terrible car accident when she was just a baby, so everything she knew about them she had found out from her grandparents or from the few pictures that she had of them.
Her mother, Gabrielle, was a beautiful woman, with piercing, dark brown eyes, almost black hair, and a smile that seemed to light up the room. She was a healer at heart with a unique energy that called out to the lost and broken. Her passion to help others led her to a career as a paramedic, where she met Izzy’s father, William. After the first date they seemed to know that they were meant for each other.
Izzy’s grandmother had once said that a force beyond understanding drew them together, but she would never explain what she meant when Izzy asked. In fact, both of her grandparents had a habit of changing the topic whenever her questions strayed into invisible forces, fate, or other abnormal subjects. Not that it ever stopped her from looking for answers on her own.
Izzy was the spitting image of her mother, except for her eyes. She had inherited her father’s deep, blue eyes, and the contrast between their cool reflection and her dark features had always drawn the interest of the boys, and some of the girls. However, Izzy had never really been interested in either. Middle school romance just seemed like one of those things that was bound to fall apart before it ever turned into something real. Well, except for Brian and Stacy. If those two didn’t make it, no one could.
The walk home was one that Izzy had done many times over the past two years, but midway through the busy city streets on her way back to her grandparents’ apartment, she got the feeling that she was being watched. Izzy looked over her shoulder a few times, but didn’t see anyone suspicious, yet the feeling remained. Trusting her instincts, Izzy walked as calmly as she could down the sidewalk before darting quickly down an alley, hoping to lose whoever was watching her.
Izzy ran to the end of the alley, glancing back once more as she rounded the corner. Unfortunately, she didn’t see the person walking in the opposite direction, and the two collided sending them both sprawling across the pavement. Izzy grabbed her head in pain and looked up suddenly aware that she had run someone down.
The stranger looked around eighteen or twenty and had a fair complexion, stunning emerald-green eyes, black hair, and a set of brilliant ruby earrings that didn’t match her casual jeans and T-shirt.
“Oh! I’m so sorry! I was running because I thought someone was following me and I wasn’t looking where I was going. I’m sorry. Are you okay?”
The woman began to laugh and after a few seconds of bewilderment, Izzy joined her.
“I’m Rose,” the woman said as they climbed to their feet.
“My name is Isabella, but everyone calls me Izzy. I’m really sorry. Are you sure you’re okay?”
Rose rubbed her forehead, but nodded.
“Yea. I might have a bit of a bruise, but I’ll be fine. Are you okay?”
Izzy checked herself, but nothing seemed any worse off than Rose's own injuries.
“Seems okay. Normally I look where I’m going, but I just had this really weird feeling today and I got all flustered and ran off without thinking.”
“It’s fine,” Rose said, “But where is the person that was following you?”
Izzy looked around and back down the alley, but couldn’t see anyone.
“I don’t know. It was the strangest thing. Like something I couldn’t see, but I could feel? I don’t know. It just sounds crazy now.”
Rose listened carefully, nodding her head as Izzy spoke.
“I don’t think it sounds crazy. Sometimes we can sense things that our eyes might miss, especially when we could be in danger. Don’t ignore that warning. It might save your life one day. It may have even saved your life today.”
Izzy got the sense that she was saying more than her words let on, but she didn’t want to question a complete stranger.
“Maybe you’re right. Either way I need to get home,” Izzy said, stepping away from the conversation, “I’m sure we’ll see each other again. After all, it’s the first time I’ve been happy about literally bumping into someone. Take care, Rose.”
Rose smiled as Izzy disappeared out of sight, safely on her way back home.
“Now to deal with this stalker…”
Rose turned the corner down the alley and her body began shifting. Bones cracked and skin tore as her flesh twisted and reshaped itself, until the woman that had stood there was replaced by a massive, snarling wolf.
“Come out phage. I could smell you a block away. If you crave a meal of flesh my claws are waiting.”
After a few seconds a grotesque, headless creature stumbled out from behind a dumpster. His eyes were mounted on either shoulder, and a gaping maw sat in the middle of his torso. The stench of rotting flesh emanated from between his predatory teeth, and blood still stained his stomach from past meals.
“The girl was mine, wolf!”
“That girl is under my protection, monster. Slink back to your disgusting hovel and chew on the bones of your victims. There will be no feast for you today.”
“We have hunted humans for generations, dating back beyond their penchant for the written word. Why would I sacrifice my quarry to your demands?”
Rose bared her teeth and snarled, “If you wish to hunt another day you will leave this human untouched!”
The phage didn’t bother to respond. It charged the wolf with its massive jaw open and menacing, while its disturbingly long, thin, limbs reached for Rose's body, threatening to pull her into its mouth. Rose waited patiently for the cannibalistic faerie to get close enough before leaping to the side and snatching one of the reaching limbs in her jaws.
Bone crunched under the strength of the canine teeth and the phage screamed in pain as it swung its other arm towards the wolf. Rose released the limb and leapt back out of the way, always just out of reach of the spider-like arms. She bit and tore at every opening the phage gave her until it was little more than a thrashing torso on the ground of the alley.
“We are many, wolf. Even if you kill me others will come. You cannot stop –”
Rose silenced the phage, ending its torment.
“Hmm, you may be correct,” Rose said as her body began to shift back to her human form, “Obviously her powers are awakening. I will need to be more diligent in her protection.”