Jackson had been in Huntwood for four days now, haunting the edges of his family’s property, living out of a shitty motel room, wondering if he’d find a way to see Summer. He’d finally gotten the nerve to text her about meeting this morning, but she hadn’t written back.
Now he stood outside Huntwood’s only rental car place, waiting for the clerk’s lunch break to end. The guy sat in there, slowly munching on a sub sandwich and listening to talk radio. Jackson felt sorry for the guy, who looked lonely, but he felt even sorrier for himself.
Summer still hadn’t messaged him back.
He sent another message. Hey, I’m sorry. We don’t have to meet in person. It was just an idea.
He waited, but she didn’t write back even though it was around noon, a time when she usually messaged him. He’d scared her off, he just knew it. Things had been safe and comfortable between the two of them for a little over two months, and now he’d had to go and screw it up by coming to Huntwood…and telling her about it. Asking her to meet. It was too much pressure. He should have hinted around it for a while, felt out the situation a little bit more. If she didn’t want to meet in person, that was fine. He’d content himself with her messages for his whole life if that’s what it took.
But what if he’d scared her off forever?
“Please,” he whispered, “don’t ignore me for good.” He just wanted her witty comebacks and pufferfish pictures back on his phone.
An empty tightness filled his chest as he looked across the two-lane highway at the little strip mall across from the rental place. Behind that strip mall, a gorgeous view of trees and mountains, with Mount Rainier beyond. Home. This was home. And as great as it felt to be here, it felt foreign to him because he was here alone, without his siblings, which were the closest thing he had to a pride. If Summer had been willing to see him, if there was a possibility there, it might have helped.
As it was, though, he was completely, utterly alone.
“Comin’ in, or what?” a loud, abrasive voice said from behind him.
He’d been so lost in thought, he hadn’t even noticed that the rental car clerk had finished his lunch break. Jackson mentally shook himself. Especially now, without the added vigilance of Will and Hayley, he needed to keep smart and alert.
He stepped into the small office, wrinkling his nose at the competing scents of ancient carpet, body odor, and a ripe sub sandwich with meat that hadn’t been exactly fresh.
The man behind the counter had dark brown hair and a pasty color of skin that signaled he rarely ventured outside. He sat back in his chair and scratched his ear. “What can I help you with, son?”
“I need a car,” Jackson said, trying not to breathe through his nostrils.
“I can help you there,” the man said, chuckling. He grabbed a clipboard and thrust it across the counter to Jackson. “Here’s the paperwork. I need to make a copy of your driver’s license. How long will you need the car?”
“A week or so,” Jackson said. “I’m not sure exactly, yet.”
“Just put all the particulars onto the form and we’ll get you sorted out.” The man turned up the volume of a portable CD player, and the chitchat on the radio grew louder.
Jackson winced and took the clipboard to a set of chairs opposite the counter. The borrowed ballpoint pen scratched against the paper while he filled out the forms. Name: Jackson Robert Jaynes. Age: 25. Driver’s license number, address—he filled those out, giving a PO Box for the address because they hadn’t had a physical home since they left Washington.
His phone sounded in his pocket, the double-chirp that signaled a text from Hayley or Will. It was strange to have to text them—they’d been so often in close quarters over the past four years that they’d simply talked whenever they had something to say. This time, it would have to wait until he got the car issue taken care of.
He took the clipboard back to the clerk and waited. The clerk looked everything over, made a copy of Jackson’s driver’s license, and unlocked a tiny safe behind the counter.
Jackson peered in the safe when it opened. A single keyring sat inside it.
“One car left,” the clerk said, grinning. “You got here just in time.”
Jackson wanted to laugh. Like there was some mad rush on rental cars about to take place.
“Right this way,” the clerk said.
Jackson followed him outside. There were only two cars in the lot, a bright green Chevrolet Spark and a white Ford Escape.
His phone gave the double-chirp again. He fished it from his pocket and spotted the texts from Hayley.
Hayley: Whatcha doin’, ass melon?
Hayley: Miss you.
Jackson: Getting a car. Leave me alone for a second.
Of course, she kept texting him, and the whole while, Jackson’s heart was sinking as he saw that they weren’t walking toward the Ford Escape, but toward the tiny little Spark.
“This is a toy car,” Jackson said, pointing to it. “What about the Ford?”
“Already spoken for,” the clerk said.
“Seriously?” Jackson asked.
The clerk wasn’t lying, but there was more to it.
“Hey, are you the one who’s spoken for it?” Jackson demanded.
The clerk shrugged. “No.”
Yeah, right. Because he was a shifter, Jackson could figure out when someone was lying, and the clerk definitely was. “I’m not gonna fit in this little thing,” Jackson said. “Look at me.”
At six foot two, he wasn’t short.
The clerk said, “Sorry, but this is the only one. If you don’t want it, no problem.”
Jackson needed a car to get around. Huntwood was a small town, but it sprawled. He couldn’t shift into his mountain lion form every time he needed to travel across town. And then there was the question of catching up with Will and Hayley, because if there was no reason to stay here, he’d have to meet up with them somehow, and he knew for a fact that Will wouldn’t pick him up anywhere near the Dark Pines territory.
Jackson sighed. “I’ll take the clown car.”
“Good decision,” the clerk said. “Here are the keys.”
Hayley: What kind of car did you get?
He snapped a photo of the Spark and sent it to her.
She sent back a series of cry-laughing emoji. At least one of them thought it was funny.
After returning to his cheap motel on the outskirts of town, Jackson worked for five straight hours, organizing events, social media posts, and a giant SocialBook party for the Licorice Fiddles. When he finished, it was already dark.
He closed his computer and left the motel, walking straight out into the woods. His family’s property was about five miles back, bordering Paris Lake. He hadn’t dared set foot on the property yet, but today, he would. It was the first step to reclaiming it, and if he could talk Will and Hayley back, this was where they’d rebuild their lives.
Once he was out of sight of the motel, he stripped out of his clothes and let the lion take over. He arms thickened and elongated, and a tail grew from his spine. The world became sharper, clearer, and the scents surrounding him even more pronounced. He could hear even better in his lion form, and what he could hear now were the sounds of his childhood. The territory he grew up in. It smelled the same, it sounded the same. Even the air tasted the same, with the sharp scent of pines, and the flowering grasses that grew in the meadows.
In the darkness, he could even better imagine how it once was—Will and Hayley running at his side, their lions young and carefree, their parents calling them in to dinner at the end of the day.
He reached the edge of his family’s property, marked only by a series of collapsed fence posts, rotting into the landscape. An aluminum sign, almost completely obscured by rust, read, No Trespassing. Hunters: Keep Out.
If only it had kept out their real enemies—the Clausens.
Jackson lifted his front paw to step over the fence. This was it. The homecoming he’d dreamed of for four years. Reclaiming their territory, rebuilding their home, their lives.
A jay called from the tree above, and Jackson froze in place. The jay didn’t scare him, but what was he thinking, coming here like this? He had no more claims to the area. Sure, the property was still in the Jaynes’ names, with the property taxes paid through a trust in perpetuity. But he couldn’t live here, not alone.
Furious with himself, he spun back around and stalked back in the direction of the motel. He shifted back into his human form and yanked his clothes back on. Breathing heavily, he dragged his phone out of his pocket and sent a message to Summer.
Sorry for scaring you off. Just want to let you know that I’ll be leaving town tomorrow, to catch up with my brother and sister going into Canada. I hope we can still be friends on SocialBook.
He was shocked when the three little dots showed up at the bottom of the message box. She was writing back.
SMG: We can meet. I’m at The A-Hole tonight.