It’s dark, and the highway before me shines like black glass. A semi roars past, temporarily blinding me with its headlights. I mutter a curse. I wrestle the steering wheel with one hand and crank up the AC with the other. It’s getting on late September, and the night air is unbearably thick with humidity. Even at eleven o’clock, dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, sweat dampens my forehead. Another big truck blazes past me in the opposite lane. As it goes by, my car shudders. I tighten my grip on the steering wheel. A buzzing sound. My phone, sitting in the cup holder, lights up, bright in the cramped darkness of the car, and I slide my gaze from the road. It’s my mom. I sigh. I grab the phone and answer it. “Yeah?” “Logan, where are you? In case you’ve forgotten, your curfew is at ten thirty. You’re thirty minutes late.” Another heavy sigh escapes me. “Yeah, Mom, I know. I’m running a bit late. Me and Jeremy got carried away with our, um, studying.” A quick mental image of glowing Xbox controllers and virtual gunfire flashes through my brain. Hurriedly, I shove away the incriminating thought. Though it’s never been proven, I swear my mom has at least a little telepathy. Which sucks, when I happen to do something I know she wouldn’t necessarily approve of. “Logan.” Her voice sounds harsh, clipped. “You know this is a school night.” “Yeah, I know, Mom.” “And don’t you have a math test tomorrow?” I lean over to flip on the radio. Electric guitars scream from the speakers; I fumble to turn down the volume. “I’m almost home. I’ll be there in like five minutes, okay?” On both sides of the road, trees flash past, and in the dark, they look monstrous and malformed. “Okay?” I hear her take a breath. “You’ll go straight to bed when you get here. And we’re going to have a talk before you leave for school in the morning, all right?” My left hand tightens around the steering wheel, but I force my voice to sound calm. “Okay, fine,” I say evenly. As I’ve previously discovered, getting angry at her never solves anything. In fact, it usually makes things worse. Besides, I’m pretty sure I can talk my way out of this. “See you when you get here,” my mom says. “I love you.” “Yeah, bye,” I say, and hang up. I try to focus on driving. There’s a sharp curve ahead, and I take it a little too fast. I yank the wheel sideways to stay in control. I love my mom, I really do, but sometimes she can be so controlling. I mean, I’m seventeen years old. I don’t do drugs, or drink, or even stay out late with friends. Well, except for tonight. And maybe a few other times . . . . But anyway, I’m pretty much a model kid. God, I don’t even have a girlfriend to fool around with. Based on all of this, you’d think she might consider loosening the reins a little. Give me a chance to, you know, live my life. But no. Of course not. I crank up the radio. I haven’t seen another car for a few miles now, and I flick on my brights, illuminating the empty stretch of highway before me. There’s a big white shape in the road ahead. A dog? It makes no move to flee. “Shit!” I gasp. I wrench the wheel hard, to the right. My tires screech. I try to correct, to steer back on the pavement, but I can’t. I bump across grass and dirt. I jerk the wheel left. The car spins. There’s a tree. It’s right in front of me. I hit the brakes, but it’s too late. I hear a massive crunching noise. My head slams into the window. Everything goes very still.
I raise my face to the darkening sky. This is my favorite time of day, especially this time of the month. “Nick,” my older brother Craig calls from just ahead of me. “You coming?” I jog toward him, my battered sneakers slapping the sidewalk. A girl with long legs and a short skirt walks past, slim hips swaying. I wink at her and her face flushes pink. I sense her gaze on me as I pass her by and keep going. “Can you please not do that?” Craig mutters, hunching his shoulders. “Do what?” I ask, all innocence. “You know what. Flirt. What if someone comes around asking about us later? What if she remembers?” I roll my eyes. “She won’t remember me. And no one’s going to be looking for us. We haven’t seen Hunters in like ten months now.” Craig frowns, but says nothing. We cut down a narrow alleyway. It’s empty except for a scraggly yellow tom who flattens his ears and hisses at us. I suppress a strong urge to hiss back. We cross the street, head down a sidewalk, circle a couple of corners. Jog along the train tracks, which glisten black in the pale glow of the moon. I balance on the rails, arms extended for balance. We leave the tracks at a copse of trees, and lightning flashes on the horizon. It looks green from this distance. I stand just outside the reach of the trees and sniff at the air. The hairs all along my arms tingle and stand at attention. Electricity lingers in the air. A thunderstorm’s coming. A prickle slithers over the back of my neck, the weight of someone staring. I glance around, but there’s no one for miles. We’re totally alone under the starry sky. The prickling intensifies—a warning. I know by now to trust my instincts, but there’s nothing out here that could signal danger. Maybe I’m being watched by a nosy cow. Craig calls to me from the trees, and I sigh. He always cuts the fun out of everything. Through the trees, through a cornfield. Husks rustle dryly against my skin. We shove through the last few corn stalks and stand before the old barn. Its outer walls are a washed-out brown. It’s sat untouched for years. I push open the doors, and they give a long groan, rusty hinges protesting. We slip inside, and I close us into the shadows. A dove stirs in the loft, cooing softly. We’re here. Now we wait. Craig paces, muttering about checking for any bugs or wires. I kick at the blades of straw that litter the floor. It’s hard being two of the last natural-born werewolves in North America. Over the past two decades, the species has been hunted and killed off to the brink of extinction. Our parents were two of thousands of casualties, back when I was thirteen and Craig was fifteen. It’s been four years since then, and we’ve been on the run ever since. Staying in small towns, big cities. Struggling to blend in with the human population and sneaking off to release our wolves once a month. Moving on when people get too suspicious or when Hunters find us. If the Hunters ever catch up with us, corner us, we’re dead. They’ll slit our throats, skin us, cut out our teeth and claws. Leave our mangled corpses in a ditch. Cases like that are all over the news lately, though the reporters never say anything about werewolves. They don’t know we exist, have no idea about the fierce battle for survival that’s been raging around them for years. The skin over my left forearm twitches. “It’s coming,” I tell Craig. “Not long now.” He just nods, a grimace overwhelming his face. I don’t think he wants to be a werewolf. He wants to be like the humans, painfully normal and sheep-like. Why, I don’t know. Pain shivers down my spine. I wait until it passes, then grab the hem of my T-shirt and peel it over my head. My jeans are next. Lastly, I step out of my sneakers and tie the laces together, dropping them onto my bundle of clothes. I’m naked except for my boxers. I glance at Craig, who’s just finished doing the same. He stands in the corner, both arms wrapped around himself in a hug. He looks so human, and I feel a stab of pity. I stride over to him. Even though he’s two years older than me, we’re almost the same height. He’s just a couple inches taller. “Ready?” I ask. He shrugs. Refuses to meet my gaze. I prowl over to the wall and press my eye to a hole. The moon sits fat and white above me, nearly in the center of the sky. I can’t hide my grin. Almost time. Minutes at most. Something stirs in the darkness outside. Light glints off a black shape. I frown, squint, see nothing. I inhale an experimental breath, but taste nothing except the usual country scents like grass and cow dung and rusted farming equipment. I push off from the wall and rejoin Craig in the center of the barn. He rubs his arms to dispel the cold. His breath steams the air. “Nick, I think we need to go tomorrow.” I stare at him. “You can’t be serious.” “I know you like it here, but—” “Two more months! Is it too much to ask for two more months? If we can stay here that long, we’ll have been in one place for a year. Wouldn’t that be amazing? A whole freaking year.” “Lower your voice, Nick,” he says. “I like it here as much as you do. They’ve got a college with great classes, and I know you like the high school. But I’m sure you realize how dangerous it is to hang around one place for too long. They could find us.” I turn my back, my face twisting up into a snarl. “Whatever,” I say. “We’ll leave, just like always. I don’t know why we even bother with school when we’re going to leave in the middle of everything. I don’t see the point.” “Nick—” The barn doors explode inward. Men dressed in black leather flood inside, all of them with rifles and crossbows pointed at us. Hunters. I skitter back, almost tripping over my own feet in my haste. My skin burns, sensing silver in their bullets and arrows. My lungs flood with their musk. Danger! my entire body screams. “Remember what the boss told us,” one of the Hunters says. “Take ‘em alive.” They come at us, a line of black with no gaps for escape. Craig snarls, face wrinkling up to show his newly formed fangs. We back up, putting space between us and them. My jaw jerks sideways and then out, lengthening, and a gasp escapes me. “Now!” one of them yells. Bullets wing past us, bouncing off the walls. I swear and dive for the ladder to the loft. My hands and feet scramble upward, dragging the rest of my body. Splinters dig into my palms, but I barely notice. “Hurry!” Craig screams behind me. “Go, go!” I reach the top and roll across the hay, out of range of the bullets. I lean back down, extending a hand for Craig. Before he can make it to the ladder, a bullet slams into his shoulder. I stare in horror as he staggers a step, yellow animal eyes locked on me, then goes down. I try to shout his name, but it sticks in my throat. I stare down at him sprawled on the floor, twitching. There’s no blood. I can’t smell or see it. I frown, narrow my eyes, focus on his shoulder. It’s a dart, silver and shiny. Protruding from his skin. Relief surges through me, choking and strong. He’s not dead. He’s alive. Just a tranq dart. The Hunters gather around my brother, prod him with their weapons. Look up at me. “There’s the other one. Get him!” A storm of darts sails right at me. I duck back and watch them clatter to the floor near the edge of the loft. My spine tightens. My face shifts, bones and muscles grinding and reforming. I grit my teeth and pant, waiting for the agony to pass. I hear a creak from the ladder. A Hunter’s climbing up, his face twisted with concentration as he tries to keep his tranq gun trained upward with one hand and maintain his grip on the ladder with the other. I snarl at him, and he falls, slamming to the floor. The others swarm around him, shooting at me again. I dodge the fresh stream of darts and move to the rear of the loft. There are no windows. No way out. I pant and fling my gaze around the musty space. Moonlight shines through cracks in the boards. There’s a tightening inside me, a ripping. A gush as something that was locked in my chest explodes free, rushing to overtake my body. I have no choice but to close my eyes and let the change sweep over me. My skin rips and shreds itself. Hair explodes up in dark clumps. I scream as claws burst from my fingers, spurting blood. The wolf takes over. I know no more.
The girl at the front of the room raises her hand. I look up from taking notes, blinking weary eyes, grateful for the distraction. My right hand aches from writing so much. Midwife Sara lowers her glasses to the tip of her nose. “Meg? You have a question?” Meg nods, chewing her pencil’s eraser. “Um, I appreciate you teaching us all this, because it’s important, but what if we don’t, um . . .” “Don’t what?” Midwife Sara asks. “What if we don’t want to be midwives?” asks Meg. “Because then we wouldn’t need to know about how to clamp an umbilical cord or deliver a breached baby. Right?” Murmurs ripple through the room. Massaging my hand, I study Meg from behind. I don’t know her well, but I think she’s thirteen. The poor girl thinks she has a chance to get out of the future that’s been planned for her, but when she turns sixteen, she’ll realize the sickening truth—what Norris wants, he gets. And in this case, he wants all girls to start having babies as soon as they’re sixteen, and keep at it until they turn fifty. It sucks, but there’s no way out of this mess. Not unless I decide to leave the colony, striking out into the frozen wilderness, putting myself at the mercy of the hungry Starved. And I’d never leave without my mom, anyway. Midwife Sara smooths her dress, taking her time to reply. Everyone stares at her. “Meg, dear,” she says calmly. “I’m sure most of you have no plans to follow my footsteps to this particular profession. But the truth is, a few of you will become midwives.” Silence. Someone drops a pencil, and the tiny clatter sounds loud in the stillness. “As much as we all want you to be beautifully fertile from sixteen until fifty, that’s not always the case. Sadly, some of you are unable to give life.” Her gaze lifts to me, and my cheeks warm. “Those of you who can’t continue our race must do some kind of work to benefit us all. And in this case, that work is midwifery.” Meg says nothing to this. She ducks her head, staring down at her desk. “Now.” Sara picks up her ruler and points it at the crude drawing tacked to the wall. “Who can tell me how to sterilize the birthing canal before the baby passes through?” * Class lets out about ten minutes later. The room fills with the sound of chairs scraping back from desks, muffled against the carpet. I stand up and shove my notes deep into my worn leather satchel. I take my time until most of the other students are gone, then nod at Sara and duck out of the room. I don’t want to talk to the other girls. Most of them used to be my friends, but they’ve started turning sixteen, and they’re . . . different. Some of them are happy, glowing and pregnant, and that’s bad enough. But then there’s a few whose shoulders curl forward, whose lips turn down in the corners, whose arms are dark with bruises from the men who impregnated them. Tomorrow night, I’ll be like that. Ridiculously happy, or . . . not. It all depends on whether I’m able to carry a baby to term, or whether I turn out just like my mom. I’m not sure which would be best. I cross the lobby of the building that used to be a bank, my boots echoing on the marble floor. Others mill around in groups, chatting, enjoying freedom from the dark, cramped shelter under our feet. Classes take place up here in the offices, as do most of the activities that occur during daylight hours. The vault’s reserved for the impregnation ceremonies, and I’ve always stayed far, far away from there. Three guys stand guard outside what used to be the bank manager’s office. Norris’s dad spent his life believing that the end of the world was nigh, and so he prepared for it. He constructed a shelter beneath his office, and stocked it full of supplies. From what I’ve heard, he labored away on that shelter for close to thirty years. People thought he was nuts. But as it turned out, he was right. He’s dead now, killed in the war, but Norris fast stepped up to take his place as our leader. Sometimes, I wonder what it would’ve been like if Norris had been the one to die, and his father was in charge of our colony instead. Sometimes, though I never say it out loud, I think that would’ve been best for all of us. I pause near the glass doors that lead outside the bank and glance over at the guards. They’re not paying attention to me—one’s chewing on a sucker, and the other two lean against the wall, having a debate about, from the sound of things, religion. Which is ironic, because I’m pretty sure I couldn’t have prayed for a better opportunity than this. I slip out the doors and let them fall shut with a hiss. I start walking, pulling up my scarf from where it rested loosely around my neck. I slide out my gloves and slip them on, shivering as an icy gust of wind stirs the hood of my coat. I expect the doors of the bank to burst open, for someone to run after me shouting that I have to come back, that people aren’t allowed to go outside the colony this close to dusk. But no one gives chase, and as I round a corner, leaving the bank behind me, I’m free. I grin into my scarf, then start to run. I sprint down the empty city street, puffs of dust rising around me. On the sidewalks, snow’s piled up in dirty gray heaps, and cars sit abandoned by the curbs. I haven’t had the chance to slip away like this for a couple weeks. With my sixteenth birthday looming so close, I’ve been forced to take class after class of birthing techniques, sex, life after giving birth to a child. My brain hurts from all the forced information; I really need a break. I keep running, satchel thudding against my hip, like I can somehow leave all that behind me, if I can just run fast enough. My lungs are burning by the time I reach my favorite building and step inside. I think it used to be a tech support place, judging from all the computers I’ve found sitting around. The door drops closed behind me with an echoing clang, and I fumble to pull my scratchy wool scarf down from my face. Despite the chill that numbs my fingers and toes, my hair sticks to the back of my neck with sweat. Carefully, I check the shadows. The lobby is massive, and glints silver despite the years that gradually crumble it away to nothing. There’s a huge desk, and several worn leather chairs. But there’s no one alive in here, no one but me. Norris would freak if he knew I’d disobeyed one of his most vital rules, the rule that states that everyone must stay inside unless granted special permission to roam throughout the city. I enjoy coming here for other reasons, but the idea of annoying Norris even just the slightest bit only adds to my pleasure. After deciding I’m alone, I push open a heavy metal door and move into the total blackness of the stairwell. But I’m not scared, because after spending ten of my almost-sixteen years under-ground, I’m used to the dark. I shuffle forward until my booted feet find the first step of the staircase, and then I climb. As I mount the stairs, my footsteps clanging one-two-one-two, wind howls outside the walls. It screams like a primal beast, threatening to rip me from the surface of this fragile rock, leaving nothing but ashes and snow. Sometimes, I think that might be for the best. Maybe humans shouldn’t exist on this world, and never should have. Maybe our brief, dangerous existence is a fluke. This is the sort of thing I can’t say in front of my mom. She believes everything happens for a reason, that things will get better, that my dad’s in heaven on a fluffy cloud, drinking champagne. I wish I shared her optimism. I pant in the darkness, enjoying the stabbing needles in my lungs. More sweat dampens my clothes. I shove away thoughts of classes and the colony and Norris, and focus on the present. I reach the top of the stairwell and trace my gloved hands along smooth metal until I find the knob. I push my way out. The darkness is lighter here, less infinite. I can see the shapes of desks, overturned chairs, smashed computers. I cross to a window, picking my way around the furniture, splintered remains of the people who worked here, typing, worrying about their jobs and their mortgages and their bills. I sit in my usual chair, which I’ve arranged for the best possible view. I’m early, though; it’s not time yet. I stare out the glass, smeared with a gray film of ash. From here, I can see across the country-side outside the city. I can see for miles. I grip my glove with my teeth and yank it off. I hesitate, then press my bare palm to the glass. The cold is sudden and intense, burning into my hand, setting my nerves on fire. I yank my hand back, hissing through gritted teeth, and stare down at my hand. My palm and fingers are red. I slide my glove back on. This might be my last chance to do this as an innocent. It’s certainly my last day at the age of fifteen—I turn sixteen tomorrow at four o’clock in the morning. I wonder what I’ll be like when I next come here. Will I be hardened or enlightened? Suffering or exhilarated? Pregnant? The gray clouds are changing, now streaked with orange. Almost time. I adjust my position in the chair, and it creaks. Far below me, I see movement on the snow. A hunched figure stumbles forward, arms limp at its sides, neck tilted too far to the right. It’s one of the Starved. I watch it continue its journey, a journey no one understands and I doubt it does either. The Starved used to be like us, think like us, talk like us, feel emotions like us. Now they’re nothing. They’re empty shells, fueled by hunger and bloodlust. Once, when I was younger, I watched a few boys throw rocks at one of the Starved. Before our moms saw and hustled us underground, to safety, I watched its face. It snarled when the rocks struck it, but I don’t think it was in pain. Its leg was stuck in a rotted plank of wood; it couldn’t get at us. It didn’t care that its face was peeling off in bleeding chunks from radiation sickness, or that one of its arms was gnawed down to the bone. It just wanted to eat us. Food’s their only motivation. Sometimes I wish I was one of them. And that’s yet another thing I can’t mention to my mom, not ever. There it goes. The sun sinks, vanishing from view. It leaves behind a sky that’s bright red and orange, smudged with black, like it’s on fire. I lean forward in my chair, clasping my hands in my lap. My mom says the sky is horrible, that she can’t bring herself to look at it. She says it used to be blue instead of grayish black, and though I’ve tried, I can’t remember it looking like that. I think if she could see it now, bright with flames, she’d agree with me that it’s still beautiful, just in a different way. Now that the sun has set, the darkness and its chill will rapidly set in. I’ll have to hurry if I’m going to be back before the doors to the colony are sealed. Once night falls, the temperature can drop unbelievably fast. And if I’m aboveground in the dark, I’ll freeze to death. I spare one last glance at the fading fire in the sky, then push back my chair and hurry for the stairs. I jog down, boots clanging on the metal, and shove open the door at the bottom. Across the lobby, outside the glass door, it’s started snowing. Fat gray flakes fall, swirling above the sidewalks, adding to the slushy heaps. I tie my scarf over my lower face, breathing shallowly. Even inside the building, I can see my breath in a cloud of steam. I reach for the door. As my hand locks around the knob, something slams into the glass. I scream and fall back, landing on my butt. It’s one of the Starved. It howls and claws at the door. Blackish blood seeps from its gooey face, and I can see its awful, jagged teeth. It’s missing an eye. I shove to my feet. It’s still clawing the door, nails screeching on the glass, desperate to get at me. “God,” I whisper. I glance around the lobby, searching for a weapon. There’s a desk in the corner, and I hurry over to peer behind it. There’s nothing but scattered sheets of papers and a stapler. What I need is a blade that’s sharp enough to stab right into the thing’s brain, which has been drilled into me over and over again as the only way to kill a Starved. I rummage in the desk. A letter opener would work, or a pair of scissors. I don’t have anything in my bag that would help. A shattering noise. I lurch to my feet. The Starved shoves past the remaining glass shards in the doorframe, staggering inside. It’s dragging one of its legs, useless, behind it, and its feet shuffle on the tile. It comes at me. “Oh God, oh God!” I stumble back, hit the wall. I’m trapped behind the desk; there’s nowhere for me to go. It keeps coming, hands reaching out for me, fingers clawing the air, then its torso hits the desk. It just stands there, moaning, too stupid to think to walk around the desk. Slowly, I release a shaky breath. I can smell the thing, a layer of sweetness that covers up a stink of rotted meat. Its cries rise in pitch until it’s wailing, clawing at me, insane with hunger. I dare to step away from the wall. “You’re not so smart, are you?” I say. “You’re just an animal. A stupid animal.” I move toward it, pause. Take another step. I’m only a few feet away from it. Paper crunches beneath my boots. This is the closest I’ve ever been to one of them. I could touch it if I wanted. I reach out, my hand shaking. The Starved lunges at me across the desk. I dodge just in time, and it hits the floor. It grabs my ankle. I scream, kick it off me, hit the floor so hard the breath gets knocked from my lungs. The Starved moans, grabs for my face. I fumble across the tile, frantic for a weapon. My hand locks around something. A stapler. A shadow falls over me. Without pausing to think, I jam the stapler into its forehead, as hard as I can. The stapler sinks in deep. Blood splatters my face. The thing sways, then slumps onto my legs, where it lies motionless. I lie gasping for a few moments, then kick my way free. I stand over the corpse, staring at the mess I made of its forehead. Wild tremors ripple through me. I did it. I actually killed a Starved, on my own. This feels like a dream. I hear a howl out in the street, and my chest clenches. I have to get out of here; more are on their way. I look at the corpse one last time, then run for the exit. I climb out through the shattered door, glass crunching under my boots. The snow’s coming down thicker than before, which makes it difficult to see. I tighten my scarf and take off running. I stare down at the street passing beneath my feet, my eyes slitted against the cold. Running as fast as I dare, I follow the curves of the dead city. I can’t feel my toes. I slip on a patch of ice and hit the ground. It takes a few seconds before I can breathe, then I stagger up. I keep running. I reach the bank and stagger inside, kicking the door closed behind me. The wind screams around the outer walls, rattling the doors. Unlike when I left, there’s no one around. All the other students, the guards, they’ve retreated underground, where it’s safe. Where it’s warm. Half out of my mind with cold, I stumble into the office, to the heavy metal door behind the desk, set right into the smooth painted concrete of the floor. I wrap one hand around the handle and pull, but the door doesn’t budge. I try again. Still nothing. It’s too late. The colony’s already been locked down for the night. “Hey!” I scream, my voice muffled through my scarf. I beat my fist against the metal. “It’s me, it’s Mia!” No one comes. No one opens the door. I’m on my own. I stumble back, glancing around the darkened office. There’s no way I can survive out here, not on my own. Humans can’t stand the frigid temperatures that night brings, everyone knows that. If I stay out here tonight, I’ll die. I choke down a wave of tears, determined not to let myself cry, no matter how bad it gets. At least this way I won’t have to worry about what turning sixteen means. I won’t be forced to have children every nine months until I finally turn fifty. So that’s something, right? I stagger across the lobby. My footsteps echo. Despite all my layers of clothes, I’ve never been so cold. “I don’t want to die,” I mumble, but there’s no one around to hear me. My legs have gone numb; they can’t hold me up anymore. I sink to the floor. It hurts my chest to breathe. I shiver, squinting into the dark. The marble floor’s so cold it feels like ice. I have to stay awake, which will increase my chances at survival. In fact, I should probably go into one of the offices, where there’s carpet. But my body refuses to take my brain’s advice, so I just sit there shivering, staring at nothing. That's the last thing I remember.