The mall is crowded today.
Too crowded for my liking.
I walk fast to keep up with my mom and older sister, Alyssa. You’d think being nine months pregnant would slow my sister down, but I swear she has more energy now than she did before she got pregnant.
My youngest sister, Alexis, complains about her legs being too short to keep up with them, which makes me roll my eyes.
I am the short one in my family. While everybody, including Alexis, who is thirteen, is over five feet eight inches tall, I’m not even five feet. I’m four eleven. And a half. Can’t forget the half. It totally counts, even if my older brother, Andrew, says it doesn’t. He says that because he’s lucky enough to be six feet four inches tall.
“Think about Little P back there,” Paige, my twin sister, says. Little P is my family’s nickname for me. I grind my teeth in irritation every time I hear it. It’s the most frustrating nickname on the planet.
Even my twin is five feet ten inches. Clearly, we’re fraternal and not identical.
Honestly, most of the time I question if I’m even related to my family at all because I look nothing like them. I’ve asked multiple times if I was adopted, but once my parents showed me my birth certificate, I stopped asking. You can’t fake a birth certificate.
I open my mouth to say something sarcastic back to Paige when somebody bumps into my shoulder. My heart stops as I watch in slow motion as the person’s bare arm graze against mine.
My whole body tenses before I’m thrown into a memory.
In my mind, I see a little boy. He’s hiding in his closet while his parents fight in the other room. He’s got his ears covered and he’s crying silently, hoping that it ends soon.
The scene changes to a teenage boy. He’s late for curfew. Only a few minutes. He was late because he stopped to help somebody change a flat tire. The second he walks through the door, somebody hits him. His father, I realize. The father doesn’t stop hitting him until the boy loses consciousness.
In the next scene, the boy, barely eighteen years old, is standing in front of a closed casket—his mother’s funeral. She was killed in a car accident. His father, who was driving drunk, was not injured. I feel like my heart is being ripped from my chest.
This woman was the only person who loved the boy—the only person the boy loved. Now she is gone forever.
Memory after memory hits me until I am so dizzy that I can’t even stand. My legs giveaway and I fall onto my knees. The stranger who bumped into me says nothing. He just keeps walking, not helping me up and not saying excuse me. I know the reason he doesn’t help me, so it doesn’t bother me that he didn’t. Life has made him bitter. He doesn’t care about me. He doesn’t care about anybody. But today is extra hard for him, because it’s been four years exactly since his mother passed away, and I can literally feel his heart breaking as if it were my own heart.
I want to shed a tear for him, but when I look up, my mom and three sisters are all standing over me.
“Penelope, are you okay?” Mom asks, looking down at me, worried.
“I’m fine.” I have yet to push myself up off the floor. I need a moment to just breathe after that. Everybody has traumatic events in their past, but his is worse than most.
“Did that man knock you down?” Alyssa asks, rubbing her hand on the front of her swollen stomach. Her eyebrows are turned down and she looks ready to fight him. I have no doubt that she would try, despite being so pregnant.
“No. I just… panicked.” My gaze drops to the floor.
I can’t look at them when I lie.
My family all thinks I don’t like being touched. My shrink even gave it a name—hapheophobia. They think that when I touch somebody I have a panic attack. I wonder what they would think if they knew the truth—that I’m some kind of weird psychic that can read people’s minds when I touch them. Not just read their minds, but I can see into their past and feel their emotions. When I touch somebody for the first time, it’s like a rush of emotions because I’m feeling everything they’ve ever felt in their life all at once. Even though it’s only for a second, it’s a complete overload and I fall sometimes.
My chest constricts and my eyes fill with tears at the thought of them finding out that I’m a freak.
Would they even believe me?
“Don’t cry,” Alyssa urges, wiping under her own eyes.
Seeing me in tears has made her cry too.
Alyssa cries over everything since she’s been pregnant. She even cried over this Doritos commercial the other day and it wasn’t even a sad commercial. When I questioned her, she simply said she was crying because she wanted chips really bad.
“Come on.” Paige holds out her hand to help me off the floor.
I’m still on the dirty, dirty floor of the mall.
When my skin touches Paige, the only thing I hear and feel are her present thoughts.
I can feel how sad she is for me, that I have to go through this. That I have such a fear of touching people. She wonders what she can do to help me.
When my family touches me, I don’t have the same reactions. Maybe because I was raised touching them? I’m not sure what it is, but I’m glad I can touch them without getting a rush of emotion. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t touch or hug my family.
“It’s really crowded today,” Paige says, helping me up and letting go of my skin.
Mom, Paige, and Alyssa all share a look. I know that look. They’re going to say maybe we should come back another day, when it’s less crowded. But I know how excited they all were to come here, and I refuse to ruin their fun.
“School starts back in two weeks, of course it’s crowded.” I tuck a strand of hair behind my ear and glance around. “Let’s just finish our shopping. I don’t want the day to be over yet.”
I force myself to smile as I say the words, hoping they buy it.
In reality, all I want to do is go home and hide under my blanket.
“If you’re sure.” Mom presses her lips together and looks at the crowded mall. I can tell she’s reluctant to leave.
I nod. “Positive.”
When the four of them smile, I know I’ve made the right decision.
I can be miserable for a few hours if it makes my family happy. They’ve made so many sacrifices for me, so why wouldn’t I do the same for them?
After the incident, I am extra cautious not to touch anybody. Paige and Alyssa both stand protectively beside me so nobody could touch me even if they tried.
We go to store after store, looking for back-to-school clothes. We also spend an hour in the baby store, browsing for clothes for Alyssa’s soon to be born baby girl. It’s Mom’s first grandchild, so it’s a huge deal.
While we grab some food from the food court, I feel a tingle at the back of my neck, like somebody is watching me. The sensation is so strong that I actually turn around to look. The food court is crowded, but nobody stands out. Nobody is staring at me.
Still, the sensation doesn’t go away.
Maybe I really am losing it.
Every single year, since freshman year, I’ve been late to school. So, for that reason exactly, I’m driving south to where the boat will pick me up in one week’s time to take me to school. This way, my father can’t complain that I’m not at school on time.
It’s not my fault—truly. Something just always delays me from getting to school on time. Since it’s senior year, my last chance, I am determined not to mess up this time.
I dart a glance at the clock on the console. I’m ahead of time, actually.
My school in the Caribbean is a special school—it’s for shifters. All kinds of shifters attend—wolves, bears, ravens, panthers, and a lot of others. The point of the school is to have unity among all in the shifter community. We’ve been trying to maintain peace, but I’m not sure wolves will ever get along with the big cats. It’s nearly impossible.
My phone rings and as I am about to answer it, I feel this tug. It’s like my heart is being ripped in half. Unable to take a deep breath, I change lanes and get off on the exit. I’m vaguely aware that I cut somebody off and they’re honking at me, but I can’t even bring myself to care. All I know is I literally can’t stop myself. It’s like my wolf has completely taken over and is driving the car. I bet if I looked in the mirror right now, I would see yellow eyes looking back at me instead of my own brown ones.
What is happening?
My wolf stays silent though.
My wolf is never silent.
I grit my teeth as we drive down the city street and eventually park in an empty spot at some kind of mall. I make my way out of the oppressive Florida heat and walk inside, still not in complete control of my body. My chest pulls at me, and it is the weirdest sensation ever.
When I enter the mall, it takes all my strength not to run. Whatever I’m walking toward, it’s big, and I can feel it with every fiber of my being. The weight in my chest gets heavier and heavier, until I eventually stop in the food court. That is when I see her.
She has her back turned toward me. Her long, black hair flows down her back.
Is she human?
Her scent hits me like a punch to the gut. Even through the crowd of people I can smell that she’s not human. But I’m not sure what she is. She smells faintly of a wolf, but she’s not a wolf shifter, which confuses me greatly. I thought wolves weren’t supposed to have mates that weren’t shifters. Yet, she is clearly my mate.
The girl, almost as if she can sense me watching her, turns around. Her eyes scan the crowd, but she doesn’t see me. I take the moment to study her face.
She’s got porcelain white skin and…
Her eyes are purple.
I’ve never seen a wolf, or any kind of shifter, with purple eyes.
One of the humans she is with says something to her and she turns back around.
The tall blonde next to her addresses her, and I finally catch her name.
It’s then that I notice the blonde isn’t actually that tall. It’s just that Penelope is short. Really, really short.
She’s going to need to be protected. My wolf agrees.
My entire body tenses and I scan the crowd of people, my eyes narrowed. I relax when I realize there is no immediate threat.
As I watch her, I feel my phone vibrate in my pocket once more.
“Hello,” I answer.
“Where are you at?” the voice asks.
“Change of plans,” I say. “I’m going to stay in Jacksonville for a little while.”
But I don’t answer the question. Instead, I hang up the phone.
I’ve found my mate.
There is no way I’m leaving here. Not without her.