Grace Hubbard was a survivor. Sure, she also had several bad habits and quirks, including nail biting and a rather trying drug addiction. But more important than any of that was the fact that no matter what life threw at her, she always managed to pick herself up, dust herself off, and continue on her journey.
This was nothing short of miraculous, given the number of hard knocks she’d received in her twenty-eight years. Sometimes it seemed like her whole life had been one rotten stream of bad luck. But even awful luck had to let up eventually, right? Too bad it wasn’t looking like today was going to be the day it happened.
Grace pressed her hands over her ears, snagging her scraggly nails in her blonde hair as she tried to block out the sounds of violence taking place around her. Her BFF had just been dragged out of the ratty hotel room by a tiger shifter ten minutes prior, so she was pretty darned certain Michelle was toast by now.
A man she’d never seen before had just joined the party, and he stood poised in the entrance to the hotel. If she hadn’t been suffering from detox and scared out of her bleeding mind she might have taken a moment or two to appreciate his sexy chin or his sculpted muscles.
“Eeny Meeny Miney Moe,” the man chanted as he backed one of the tiger shifters into a corner. “Catch a tiger by the TOE!”
Her eyes widened in shock as the man’s arm sprouted fur and morphed into a massive bear paw before her eyes. There were large leathery pads on the bottom and the tips were crowned with lethal black claws. The tiger snarled in agony as the bear shattered the bones in his far smaller and more delicate feline paw.
The man’s clothing shredded and fluttered to the ground all around him as he swiftly completed his transition from man to beast. The massive bear roared savagely in its foe’s face, saliva spewing forth from the force of his rage. The tiger scampered away, and the bear let him. It was like a cat letting the mouse free just so he could toy with him some more.
The two animals flitted back and forth in a timeless dance of violence, but instead of curtsies and dips there was hissing and blood. It was horribly fascinating, and she struggled to tear her focus away. She needed to come up with a plan. Too bad she’d never been able to think well under pressure.
“Pull yourself together,” she admonished herself, rocking slowly in the corner of the room by the bed, wondering if it were possible that the men might forget about her and just stick to fighting amongst themselves. Nope. She was a realist and that wasn’t a likely scenario.
“Tigers and bears,” she muttered softly to herself as she wracked her brain for a plan. “I guess that makes me Dorothy. All I need is a freaking tin man and we’ll all be ready to frolic our way to Oz.”
But life wasn’t a Technicolor extravaganza, and the Great and Powerful Oz hadn’t given her jack shit, so she wasn’t going to stick around and wait to see who won the fight. It didn’t really matter. She was nothing but an inconvenient witness, and growing up in impoverished neighborhoods had taught her all about what happened to people who showed up at the wrong place at the wrong time. They went to sleep with the fishes, mafia style.
When Grace saw her opening she darted for the door and she didn’t look back as she ran into the night. The hotel room had become a little too crowded in her opinion. Her hands clenched tightly around the small bag of pills that promised her an escape of an entirely different nature. All she had to do was get away and then she could get high. The darkness was both a blessing and a curse, being as it would make it harder for them to track her down, but it was also making her escape more challenging.
She was weak and more than a little wobbly, but terror had added a nice adrenaline-laced burst of speed to her foot-powered getaway. She had spent the last week as a hostage to a nasty bunch of drug dealers. You’d think they could at least have had the decency to share the merchandise, but no, they had been stingy as hell. It had been like getting signed into the world’s shittiest rehab center against her will.
And their bad manners and criminal proclivities weren’t even the scariest thing about them. No. Not even close. These guys represented a whole new league of bad boy, and she hadn’t exactly led a sheltered life! She’d originally thought she was tripping when they sprouted fur and morphed into tigers, but her nightmares had been real. Apparently shapeshifters existed in more than horror movies.
“Gonna be sick.”
Grace stumbled to the side of the road and retched. Whether it was a result of the violent bear-against-tiger fight scene she’d just witnessed, or the fact that she was experiencing a horrible case of drug withdrawal was hard to say for sure.
It could also have been her guilt over unintentionally luring her foster sister Michelle to a violent death. You know what? Take your pick. The easier question would have been to ask, why wouldn’t Grace be vomiting?
Add all that up and the sum equaled a pretty shitty week. Although sadly, it still wasn’t the worst one she’d ever endured. Grace had been molested as a child, and having suffered so much at a tender young age had helped put everything else in perspective. Very few of life’s trials could compete with the horrors of abuse.
Even on a good day her life was chaotic at best, which was why she needed to take some pills . . . and fast. She needed to distance herself from what was happening before it ripped open that scary box where she stored all of her most terrible memories, the ones she didn’t know how to cope with. Lacking the motivation to stand up right away, she shifted from her knees to her butt and hoped that there weren’t snakes in the tall grass that ran alongside the highway.
“Because trying to murder me by a bus station would have been too considerate,” she whined.
The motel where they’d gone to meet up with Michelle had been pretty darned remote. It was night, and were it not for the moon she wouldn’t have been able to see her hand in front of her face. She opened up the little baggie of pills, sifting through the assorted shapes and colors, looking for something to help numb the pain, but there wasn’t enough light to make out most of them.
“Please be Ecstasy,” Grace whispered plaintively before pressing a couple of small round tablets in her mouth and swallowing them down hard. Taking pills without water certainly wasn’t for sissies. She really hoped that the pills she’d just taken we’re at least uppers, because she was already way too “down” for her own liking. Ecstasy wasn’t her only drug of choice, but she wasn’t exactly in a place where she could afford to be picky right now.
It took several minutes for the effects to kick in, but then she felt it, the blast of exhilaration coursing its way through her bloodstream. Her muscles tensed and another spike of nausea blasted through her system, but given how she’d already emptied her stomach there was nothing left for her to throw up.
She stuffed the bag of remaining pills down her bra and pulled herself to her feet. It was time to get moving again. Too bad she hadn’t thought to steal a car from the hotel lot. That would have made it much easier to put some distance between her and her soon-to-be murderers. Too bad it would also likely have landed her in prison. Juries weren’t know to be all that understanding of extenuating circumstances, not when the plaintiffs were drug addicts.
“I’ll keep walking until I reach a new town, and then I’ll just start over,” she chanted under her breath as she scurried along the side of the highway. Like any of that would be easy! She hated to think of her sad little apartment without Michelle to share it with her.
Would there come a time when she just stopped caring? Honestly, was it even worth struggling to survive? Nothing ever seemed to get any better. At the moment she didn’t have so much as one dollar to her name. How pathetic was that? Sometimes she wondered if she should just embrace the fact that she was a loser and move on.
She tired out pretty early on and sat down for a spell to rest her sore feet. Grace leaned her back against a speed limit sign and must have dozed off for a while because she was in a state of confused sleepy grogginess when she woke up. Staying this close to the highway probably wasn’t the smartest thing she’d ever done, but she didn’t have a flashlight and the last thing she wanted to do was get lost in the middle of nowhere.
Without her foster sister waiting for her she didn’t feel like there was anything worth going back to their old apartment for, not when that came with the very real risk of being murdered. It wasn’t like she had any money or valuables stashed away for a rainy day. Ha! Thanks to the shitty foster care system she didn’t even have any childhood pictures, let alone a legit scrapbook or anything of remotely sentimental value.
She’d heard the term “throwaway society” once, and the phrase had become permanently engraved in her brain. That’s how she felt about herself. She was disposable, like a ratty old paper plate that wouldn’t ever be clean again and was therefore destined for the nearest trash bin. There were stains marring her soul that would never wash out.
Even if those bears managed to take out the drug dealing tigers she’d left duking it out back in the hotel room, she still wouldn’t be able to go back to their apartment because there were several dozen more members in the tiger gang who wouldn’t hesitate to silence her in order to protect their dangerous secrets. The only reason she’d survived this long was because they’d needed her in order to lure her friend Michelle out of hiding. Now that they’d taken care of her foster sister, there would be nothing to stop them from blowing out her brains.
Grace’s life may have sucked royally, but that didn’t mean she planned to go down without a fight. The fact that she didn’t have her wallet just made everything a hundred times more complicated, because that meant she had no legal forms of identification. But she’d probably still be able to score a job somewhere that paid under the table.
“Time to use the gifts God gave me,” she muttered when she heard a car approaching.
She hiked up her jean skirt to reveal even more of her slim legs, fluffed her blonde hair, and tried to contort her spine in such a way as to make her chest appear bigger than it actually was. She plastered a fake smile on her face and pointed up her thumb. Hitchhiking may have been dangerous, but it sure as hell beat walking in the dark, or worse, yet getting caught by those monsters.
The window rolled down the barest sliver and a man said, “Hop in.”
Her butt had already hit the seat before she realized that the driver was buck naked. Oh shit, it was the bear with the creepy nursery rhymes! She tried to lurch back towards the door, but the man’s hand darted out at super speed and dragged her ass back into the car. At the rate her plans were crumbling around her, she might just have the worst week of her life after all. Hell, she just might have the final week of her life.