Shantaya entered the pew from the opposite end as Jeremy and then sidled along it until she could sit down next to him. He was seated at the edge by the sanctuary’s central aisle. If he noticed when Shantaya had been approaching he didn’t show it — but then, he didn’t bother to react when she settled in next to him, either.
Eventually, Shantaya couldn’t take the silence. “Hey,” she said quietly. She winced, thinking her voice sounded too loud in the big, empty room. But she pressed on regardless. “I heard you had a crap day,” she added. “I’m sorry.”
The sympathetic apology elicited a sideways glance from Jeremy. Shantaya couldn’t read his expression, and he didn’t let it linger long enough for her to really try. He turned forward again and resumed staring at the hymnals tucked into the back of the pew in front of him.
“It’s not your fault,” Jeremy finally said.
Shantaya winced again. She was a lot better at yelling at people like Jacob than at being the tender nurturing sort who made everything better like Janiqua had teased her about. “I know,” she said. “I mean… I just mean it sucks. But I’m here if you want to talk about it.”
“I don’t,” Jeremy said flatly.
Shantaya recoiled. She’d never heard Jeremy sound like that before. Angry like that. Shoot, they used to make fun of the stereotype of the ‘angry black male’ whenever they would watch movies or TV together. She’d seen Jeremy get frustrated before. But never angry. She put a hand on his arm. “Do you think maybe you should anyway?,” she asked.
Jeremy turned toward her again — but this time it was to look at her hand, not her. Shantaya froze. She wanted to pull her hand away, but something — some instinctual reaction between predator and prey — made her keep it still. She didn’t recognize the feeling, though, because this was Jeremy. Still, the way his eyes focused in on her hand, then crawled up her arm and shoulder before reaching her face… It made her scalp prickle.
Shantaya suppressed a shiver. Is this what they mean in books, when they say someone’s hair stood on end? She made herself smile at Jeremy and tried to figure out why she was suddenly so uneasy — despite disregarding all the reasons her instincts threw at her because they didn’t make sense with Jeremy.
Jeremy’s eyes studied Shantaya’s. She could see turmoil in them. Pain and embarrassment and anger and hints of the dull emptiness of feeling too much for too long that made a person start to be dead to it. And something else. Something that brought up a memory of her sister’s words whispering in the back of her head. You should probably decide what you’re going to do if he takes that as an invitation to make a move for some ‘physical’ therapy.
But Jeremy wouldn’t… would he? No. No, of course he wouldn’t. Would he?
“I think you should go,” Jeremy said before Shantaya could sort out the sudden spike of doubt and — just to be honest with herself — fear that his gaze had brought up in her. His voice was low. It didn’t echo in the empty sanctuary like she’d thought hers did. “Because I’m pretty sick of people trying to decide what I should or shouldn’t be doing for me, today. And right now I don’t know if I want to rip your clothes off — because for some reason I’ve just realized you’re freaking hot, ‘Taya, and I don’t know how I’ve missed that for all these years — or rip your throat out because you’re trying to boss me around, too.” He gave a bitter laugh. “Fuck,” he said. “Or maybe I just want a damn sandwich. You know, I’ve been starving all fucking day.”
Shantaya swallowed. Jeremy didn’t curse. But he was the first person she could remember calling her ‘Taya, when they’d been kids — even though her dad claimed he’d made up the nickname in reality. Hearing it right now, though, it sounded alien coming from Jeremy: not like it had when he’d been a little boy trying to get her to slow down so he could keep up. Not even like it had the last time they’d been on the phone, talking about books. This time it sounded hungry.
Shantaya had already backed away as far as she could without actually removing her hand from Jeremy’s arm. Jeremy’s arm… except that suddenly she realized that this wasn’t Jeremy. She didn’t know what happened, but this guy: he wasn’t the Jeremy she knew. Not really. Maybe he was still upset about the fallout from whatever Jacob had done, or… or something. But one thing was for sure: she didn’t know how to relate to him right now. At all.
Shantaya pulled her hand back. The motion brought his attention back to it. She froze again despite herself.
“Yeah,” Jeremy said as though he agreed that pulling away from him in fear was the appropriate response. “You know, I didn’t want to start any fights today. But now? Right now I don’t know what I want or what’s going on with me or even what I’m going to do if you stick around — but if you want to have a say in it, don’t try to tell me what to do. Just get out of my way so that your involvement isn’t an option, ‘Taya. Alright?”
“I…” Shantaya tried to marshal a response, but couldn’t quite force herself to deliver it. She didn’t want to attract Jeremy’s attention again. She forced herself to, anyway. Whatever happened, he’s my friend and I’m always there for my friends.
“If you’re hungry,” Shantaya said, hoping she could get away with focusing on the least disturbing thing he’d said, “I could get something from the kitchen. I think there’s snacks left over from Wednesday. I could… I could have Benny bring it up?” It was the best she could make herself offer. If she got away from Jeremy, she wasn’t going to be able to come back. Not alone. Not while he was like this.
But Jeremy laughed in the face of her offer. It was a bitter sound, as though he knew why she’d offered up Benny as the delivery boy in her place.
“You know,” Jeremy said, “I’m trying to keep this in. I know I’m not supposed to be like this. But I already ripped Benny a new one, earlier. And right now I don’t even regret it.” She heard his fingernails scrape along denim as one of his hands curled into a fist. The noise caught her attention and a glance showed that he’d been doing that off and on for a while: he’d managed to wear holes in his jeans, right above the knees. There was a matching set of rips on the other pant leg, even though that hand’s fingers were still spread and relaxed. “So… Just keep everyone downstairs. Got it? I’m not fit to be around people right now. Not if I can’t even stop myself from saying shit like that I want to…”
Jeremy’s words cut off — but only because he’d reached out toward her. Shantaya pulled away hastily — she wasn’t sure if he was reaching for her face or her neck, or which option was the one that made her jerk back. Neither made sense! Not from Jeremy! She didn’t find out which he meant to go for, though, because he managed to rein himself in. His nostrils flared and he pulled his hand back. “Just get out of here,” he growled. “Now, ‘Taya.” He got up and slid out of the pews so she wouldn’t have to go so far to escape — though she almost went the long way again, just so she wouldn’t have to get closer to him. “I mean it. I’ll come down when I’m ready.”
Shantaya slid out of the pew and into the aisle past Jeremy. She was tempted to just flee, but something made her hesitate. Her instincts told her to make her escape while she could, but loyalty made her stand up to those instincts. This was Jeremy. He might’ve gone a little off the edge after whatever the hell had gone down between him and Jacob, but she was still his friend and he wasn’t thinking straight. “Okay,” she said. “But Jeremy: you should maybe just stay up here.” She swallowed. “Jacob showed up,” she explained before he could accuse her of trying to boss him around again. “And I don’t know if Benny managed to get rid of him, so it might be best for you not to risk it if you don’t want to get in a fight. But if Benny didn’t get rid of him, then at least Benny will be keeping him downstairs and out of your hair, alright?”
Jeremy stepped toward Shantaya and she barely managed to refrain from shrieking at the intensity of his snarl. “What?” he demanded.
Shantaya tried to rein in an uncharacteristic tremble as she struggled for words — but she didn’t get to explain further.
“Hey,” Jacob called from the sanctuary’s main doors. “Hey, thug.”
Or, Shantaya thought as she leveled the kind of curse at Janiqua that only sisters can throw at each other, Benny would be keeping Jacob downstairs and out of your hair if someone didn’t decide to distract him somehow. She shifted to the side just enough to look at Jacob. He was big and blocky — as expected of a football jock. He had a kind of puggly face with a bit of gap between his front teeth that could’ve been fixed with braces but hadn’t been. When they were younger the other kids used to call him ‘Bunny’ to tease him about it — at least, until the growth spurts hit and he started flattening people who annoyed him.
Now, Jacob’s face wasn’t cute or cartoony. His eyes were pinched together and he had a scowl that Shantaya had seen in the hallways before: the look that meant someone was about to get knocked down and kicked around for daring to ‘not look where they were going’ and run into him. As though anyone didn’t realize he was the one who decided to plow into them.
But Shantaya’s attention was pulled away from Jacob by Jeremy. He abruptly straightened. “Jacob,” he said softly — almost silently. Jeremy’s chest rose and fell as he started to breathe heavier, and the muscles in his arms knotted and flexed as though seized with the urge to lash out. But it was Jeremy’s face that made Shantaya back away another step.
Shantaya had recoiled at Jeremy’s expression. His eyes had widened, but the rest of his face went completely blank — almost like it had forgotten how to show emotion. Then his eyes drifted closed. Once they were shut his lip curled, and then Jeremy’s eyes reopened as angry slits. His gaze was skewed to the side, as though he could see Jacob’s approach from the corner of his eye, despite Jacob being behind him still. Jeremy’s nostrils flared. “Shantaya,” Jeremy repeated in a low, dangerous voice — too quietly for Jacob to hear — “you really need to go.”
“Jeremy?” Shantaya asked nervously. Her flight instinct had long since gotten too loud for her to ignore, but she’d never felt it in the context of Jeremy before — and that emotional dissonance was keeping her from giving in to it. Usually she was the one who had to stand up to Jacob’s teasing for him.
Jeremy’s eyes shifted to focus on Shantaya. “I said I didn’t know what I’d do if you stuck around,” he repeated. “But I’m gonna kill Jacob, and you don’t want to be here for that.” He smiled: a feral baring of teeth. “You’re just too nice, and you’ll get stuck with having to try and stop me. And I don’t want you around for that, ‘Taya. Because now that I have someone else to fuck up, I can see that I really don’t want to hurt you, but if you get in my way I don’t think I’ll be able to stop myself.”
“Hey,” Jacob called out again in annoyance. “You listening to me, thug?” Jeremy hated being called that, Shantaya knew. Hated it because it was the complete opposite of who he was, even though so many people were happy to assume otherwise because of the color of his skin. And Jacob knew that, which was why it was his taunt of choice. Because not only did it grate Jeremy’s nerves and demean him by reducing him to a stereotype, but it also emphasized that Jeremy had never — and would never — resort to the sort of action that it would actually take to make Jacob stop using it.
“I said you owe me an apology,” Jacob called. He started walking down the aisle toward Jeremy’s back. “My tutor freaking walked out on me because of that bullshit at the library. And she was cute!”
Jeremy’s hands curled into fists — instinctively, Shantaya reached out and put her hands on his arms in a gesture of restraint. It was only a gesture, though, because she had the sinking feeling that if he lost it she really wouldn’t be able to hold him back. She’d never thought about it before — she’d never had too — but somewhere over the years, Jeremy had gotten tall. And screwing around with the guys in the gym had kept him in decent shape. He wouldn’t hurt her — she was confident of that, whatever he had said. But if Jeremy and Jacob got into it, she was equally confident that one of them — maybe both — was going to get fucked up. After all, Jacob might’ve only pulled second string but he was still on the football team. And he didn’t just use his size to smash people on the field: he was a bully and a brawler whenever he could get away with it.
“Jeremy, calm down,” Shantaya ordered in a vain attempt to exert some control over the situation. “And Jacob,” she snapped past Jeremy, “back off. We’re in a church. This is not the time or place to pick a fight. So don’t be an ass.”
Jacob sneered as he swaggered closer. He was oblivious to the low growl that rose in Jeremy’s throat and made Shantaya tense like a deer in headlights. “Oh, come on Charlotte,” he taunted — breaking her out of the unexpected prey response before it could sink in. “You know I’m not gonna start anything in church. You’d have to be a real thug to do something like that.” He feigned a pious expression that made his words mocking. “After all, Jesus is watching.”
As much as Shantaya secretly liked Jeremy’s nickname for her — ‘Taya — from when they were kids, she despised Jacob’s. He’d started calling her Charlotte after declaring that ‘Shantaya’ was a made up name and too weird to bother learning how to pronounce. But calling her names that weren’t her own was just the same old same old for Jacob — and he was out to get his own back with Jeremy tonight, not her.
“But if Jerry wants to start something,” Jacob added, “Isn’t that his business? I mean, he’s the thug. And he was eager enough to swing fists earlier.” Jacob stopped. He curled his own hands into fists before launching his next barb. Now that he was closer, Shantaya could see that he had a split lip. What? she thought. Jeremy wouldn’t have thrown a punch! No way.
“Although,” Jacob said as though he’d honestly given it some thought, “if Jerry’s going to keep letting his girlfriend stand up in his place instead of letting you see him act like the thug he is, then maybe he wouldn’t mind if you went ahead and ‘apologized’ for him, too.” Jacob leered at Shantaya, but his eyes didn’t leave Jeremy as he stood ready to end the fight he was trying to goad the other boy into starting. “You’d enjoy it too much for it to really count as an apology,” Jacob tossed out for both of them, “but what can I say? I’m just that good, Charlotte.”
Shantaya had never disguised her dislike of Jacob and his bullying ways, but the sheer sleaze with which he leveled his proposal was enough to make her feel disgusted — and dirty — all on its own. She barely had an opportunity to react to that, though, because Jeremy reacted more fiercely.
Jeremy didn’t turn and take a swing at Jacob — which was what Shantaya half-expected, what Jacob was clearly setting him up for. She could feel the tension of Jeremy’s muscles under her palms. Muscles that she’d never really thought about geeky, quiet Jeremy even having. But he did. Only instead of spinning and throwing the first punch, Jeremy suddenly cried out and hunched over.
“Jeremy?” Shantaya cried out in alarm. Abruptly she forgot about Jacob, and Janiqua’s warnings, and even how scared Jeremy’s behavior had been making her get. She grabbed for Jeremy as he toppled forward. She couldn’t support his weight, and he bore her down to the carpeted aisle as he curled in on himself — twisting protectively around his injured arm — and then cried out again.
“Jeremy?!” Shantaya struggled to get out from under him, but he thrashed. She couldn’t keep a grip on him, not even to push him away. He jerked away from her — only he didn’t. His arm wrenched out of her grasp, but but not because he’d moved it. It moved itself, twisting and withering as it pulled away.
“What the fu…” Jacob started to say. He was interrupted by Jeremy throwing his head back and screaming.
Jeremy’s scream was one of pain and fury and primal, bloodthirsty rage. And it was punctuated by splintering bone and tearing flesh and ripping cloth.
Shantaya shrieked and scrambled back, finally liberating herself from Jeremy’s bulk. Her flight was cut short when she unexpectedly backed into the side of a pew on the other side of the aisle. In front of her, Jeremy’s face exploded forward: elongating and sprouting fur even as fangs tore free of his gums and his scream devolved into a howl. Shantaya stared at Jeremy in uncomprehending shock.
Jeremy was gone. The… the monster that stood in his place was huge and feral. Its sleek fur was a russet black — like blood so dark it wasn’t red anymore. Its pale eyes locked onto Shantaya with an intensity that was even more unnerving than the rest of the madness — more unnerving than the impossibility that Jeremy had turned into a wolf to begin with! This isn’t real, Shantaya thought. This can’t be real. But every one of her instincts screamed at her that instead of debating the unreality of the situation, she needed to run.
The wolf’s muzzle wrinkled as it bared its fangs and growled, almost as though it realized what her instincts were telling her and was warning her that it was too late already.
I don’t know if I want to rip off your clothes, Jeremy’s quiet voice suddenly echoed in Shantaya’s memories, or rip out your throat. It felt like her heart was trying to pound its way up her esophagus and out her throat. Jacob was somewhere behind Jeremy, but Shantaya couldn’t make herself take her eyes off the monster wolf to see if Jacob was doing anything — if he hadn’t just run away. I don’t want to hurt you, the memory of Jeremy’s voice whispered in her mental ear, but if you get in my way I don’t think I’ll be able to stop myself.
Shantaya wasn’t in Jeremy’s way. She wasn’t going to try to stop him — she was too scared to move! But she was right in front of him, and from the raised hackles and rumbling, dangerous growl, Shantaya got the distinct impression that ‘in front of it’ was good enough for the wolf.
Run, Shantaya mentally screamed at herself. Get up and run! But she was too scared, too deeply in shock… She forced herself to take a breath. Willed her leaden limbs to respond. She braced herself mentally to break out of her paralysis so that she could actually get up and bolt.
And then the wolf leapt. The breath Shantaya had taken escaped in a scream as the beast slammed into her, crushing her against the pew, claws and fangs rending. It lasted only a second, maybe not even that. In the surge of adrenaline and the sudden chaos of the wolf’s impact and the terror and the pain and…
In an instant of frantic struggle and mind-blanking panic, Shantaya lost track of everything. She hurt, but she didn’t know where or from what or… the wolf’s jaws let go of her neck and she sagged down sideways since the pew wouldn’t let her fall back. The weight of her torso made her tumble to the ground. Her vision bounced, but she didn’t even feel her head strike the floor.
Everything seemed fuzzy. That was nice. It made the pain fade out a little. She blinked but it didn’t do anything to help her see better. Maybe because her eyelids hadn’t actually closed and reopened. Why wasn’t her body listening to her? More fuzziness was crowding in around the edges of her vision, like a tunnel of static collapsing in on itself. The wolf was standing on her lower half, still.
A wolf? What was a wolf doing in a church? That was silly. Blood matted its muzzle. Messy. It growled angrily. Shantaya tried to reach out and pet it so it would feel better, but her arm didn’t move. That was weird. But oh well. It was just as good that she couldn’t move, anyway: she hurt. Shantaya didn’t want to move. She wanted to sleep.
The wolf turned away and stepped off of her stomach and legs, off of her. Bye-bye, Shantaya thought at it since her body wasn’t responding enough for her to talk. Was she even breathing? Oh well. She could worry about that after her nap.
A nap would be good. Maybe if she was asleep she wouldn’t hurt so much. Except she didn’t hurt. That wasn’t pain: she was just numb. And cold. Really, really numb and very, very cold.
The wolf — a lanky, sinuously beautiful and terrifying creature, all in one, stalked away. Was there someone else back there? Was that where the wolf was going? Shantaya thought that maybe there had been. Maybe? It didn’t matter, did it? But maybe if there was, they could take care of the wolf for her, since she couldn’t get up to pet it. She wanted to giggle, but she couldn’t do that, either. A wolf in church. That was just silliness thinking.
And… And… And when had it gotten so dark?
So dark. Shantaya let it wash over her. Dark was good. It took the pain and the cold and the numbness away. It took everything a…
But then there was nothing else for the darkness to take. Not even thought.