As I had year after year; my eyes fluttered open, tracing the large crack in the ceiling. I could have sworn it grew over the years, but I long ago stopped caring. On especially boring days, I would lay in bed and make patterns out of the popcorn ceiling. From the thin layer of sweat coating my body, I knew today would be miserably humid. Our little window air conditioner only did so much against the blistering sun.
The scent of sweet syrupy pancakes filled my nose, awakening my stomach. Mom had long ago stopped letting my Dad cook. Over ten batches of burnt bacon later, she had learned her lesson. Dad cleaned the house and helped Zack get ready for school, while Mom cooked and paid most of the bills. Now that school had let out and summer began, Dad spent most of his days making sure Zack had something to do. As he was still too young to roam the town as I did.
Knowing Adley would be around any minute now, I pulled myself from my crappy mattress on the floor. My body groaned in protest as it had many times. I slipped on a thin cotton tank-top and a non-ripped pair of shorts. A sour taste lingered in my mouth as I thought about the necklace I had lost, but I quickly pushed it from mind. It would do no good to worry about it. I combed through my flaming locks and pulled it up in a messy bun, then applied a heavy layer of deodorant.
Just as I slipped on my beat-up sneakers, Adley’s impish face peeked from my bedroom door. Adley was one of those people who woke up at the crack of dawn, hyper and rearing to seize the day. I enjoyed a more subtle approach to my day--by sleeping in until eleven in the morning. Since Adley and I had become friends, she wouldn’t allow my bitter mood to spoil her day. As soon as school ended, Adley would walk over to my house early in the morning.
“You’re up! Awesome, let’s start the day!” Adley grinned, her blonde hair pulled up in a high pony. She looked like one of those fitness models on the cover of a magazine, with curves and muscles in all the right places. While my stomach was toned from the life of a werewolf, my hips were wide and my chest was full. At one-point Adley had tried to give me an old dress of hers, and I nearly toppled over laughing as it refused to stretch over my full chest.
“I need breakfast before I deal with you.” I raised an eyebrow, stalking past Adley and heading towards the scent of delicious food.
“Always a pleasure, Rachel.” Adley snickered.
Mom stood in the kitchen, tossing steaming pancakes onto a plate. Dad orbited around Mom, cleaning up her scraps and wiping down the counters. Zack sat at our plastic kitchen table, digging into a stack of pancakes as though it was his last meal.
“Zack, eat your eggs.” Dad called out over his shoulder, knowing Zack hated anything that wasn’t sweet. As if on cue, Zack scrunched his nose and glared at the scrambled eggs on his plate.
Adley giggled as I stalked over to Zacks plate, stealing the fork from his hand and eating the buttery scrambled eggs for him. His emerald eyes twinkled as he gave me a brilliant smile, turning his attention back to his pancakes. Dad turned around at the sound of Zack’s laugh, giving me a pointed look laced with humor. Dad threw together a plate for me and Adley, which we ate in the small living room.
“Can I come with you?” Zack whined, “Please, Rachel! I want to see the cars! Aiden said he’d teach me!”
“I know, bud.” I sighed, desperation in my eyes as I looked over at Adley. “Next time, alright? I’ll bring you over to help Aiden and see the cars.”
“Plus, I need your help around here.” Dad called out, giving me an encouraging grin.
Adley and I left the house with our stomachs full, bouncing down our creaky wooden porch as we had many times before. The crackling heat hit us full force, an instant sweat began to break out on the back of my neck. The scent of dry dirt lingered in the air, putrid and stale. I had read countless books about other places, ripe with fruit and flowers, full of sprawling cities and icy waters. This little town held none of that. You were lucky to manage a garden in this humid little town, as rain refused to come often.
The two of us headed down the street, meandering past houses nearly identical to my own. While each house had withered boards, cracked trimmings, and faded front doors, our house was the only one painted yellow. Aidan lived on the other side of town, where the dirt and dead grass seemed to stretch out for miles. Aiden’s Mom worked at the Food-Mart in town, while his Dad made money fixing up cars. Aiden’s family was like an extension of my own, as his parents had helped raise me. While neither side said anything, I knew both of our families expected us to be mates. Aiden and I just seemed to click, as though an otherworldly force were drawing us together. We had been inseparable since birth, which hadn’t changed over the years.
It was a fifteen-minute walk to Aiden’s house, the longest walk possible in this little town. On the way, we passed by the nicer houses in the neighborhood. Those houses belonged to Connor and June’s exclusive friend group. The houses that were made from wood were pristine, not a stain or crack along the boards. Level front porches made of smooth wood, set with rocking chairs and one of those swinging benches. Connor and June’s house were the largest of them all, the walls smooth and white with towering columns. From across the road, I could hear the laughter and splashes as Connor, June, and all of their friends swam in their in-ground pool. I tried to hide the jealous glare that settled on my face whenever I thought about that pool. When I was a kid, I had begged Mom and Dad for a pool and had been horribly disappointed when they came home with a little blow-up pool. I had quickly learned not to ask for things we couldn’t afford.
As the houses thinned out, and the clumps of dead grass became larger, I knew we were approaching Aiden’s house. Aiden’s house was much like my own, standing on its last legs. A two-story house that might’ve been attractive in its prime, now stood sadly against the barren backdrop. The thick buzz of dragonflies filled the air, along with the smell of machine oil and gasoline. Nestled against the aging house was a large two car garage. It wasn’t one of those nice ones you see at a normal mechanic, but it shielded Aiden and his Dad from the occasional rain and relentless sun while they worked.
Both garage doors were open, but only one had a car inside. A sleek black mustang sat inside the garage, looking too shiny and new to blend in with its decaying surroundings. The car had to be at least ten years old, but the paint was pristine and soaked in the sun’s hot rays. A pair of legs stuck out from under the car, his cargo shorts had risen, showing off toned calf muscles.
“Are you going to stand there and check me out, or come pass me a wrench?”
A lopsided grin was on Aiden’s face as he rolled out from underneath the car. His face and arms were smudged with oil, his hands blackened from layers of grease and hours of work. Aiden’s hair was the color of melted milk chocolate, his eyes a bright shade of hazel. He had been tall and lanky his entire life, but working at his Dad’s shop had helped put some muscle on him. His front tooth was chipped from the time we had climbed his house to watch the stars as they popped into the sky. Adley stepped off to the side, determined to avoid the filth that covered Aiden’s body. Aiden’s eye’s narrowed slyly as he approached me, his arms stretched out and a devious grin on his face.
“Aiden don’t you dare.” I snapped, stumbling away from his grease coated body. “I’m wearing a white tank-top!”
Aiden surged forward, his arms around my waist and my chest pressed against his own. He lifted me into the air like a sack of flour, grinning at me madly. Unable to resist his lopsided smile, one of my own stretched across my face. Aiden had always known how to make me laugh, how to coax a smile from me on my worst days. While we fit together seamlessly, I never felt the rush of butterflies when in his presence or under his touch. I had never felt the blood boiling, toe curling passion that I know exists in the world. I often wondered if this was what love was like, if there was no such thing as blistering passion but only safety and security. I rolled my eyes as Adley snickered at the two of us, noting the grease stains on my white tank-top.
“I’ll never be able to get these stain’s out, y’know.” I narrowed my eyes at Aiden, who grinned innocently. “You owe me a new tank-top.”
Aiden paused, a serious look forming on his face as his eyes roamed my torso. I felt nothing under his wandering eyes, nothing like what the books I had read described love as. Blood refused to rush to my face, butterflies refused to swarm my stomach. Aiden was an attractive guy, with a smile that begged for one of your own, but I had never felt anything more than comfort and attachment.
“Mm, I think it’s kind of hot.” Aiden shrugged, a heart-breaking smile tugging at his lips. “Come, step into my office.”
“Office.” Adley scoffed, eyeing the grease coated tools warily.
Adley hated any kind of dirt or grime, keeping her distance from most of the objects in Aiden’s garage. Aiden lifted me onto the trunk of the car and took a seat on one of those mechanic stools. Aiden’s Dad emerged from the house, grinning as he caught mine and Adley’s eye. Aiden’s was the spitting image of his Dad, only his build was just a little bit smaller. I always wondered how Aiden’s Dad managed to work on cars with those catchers’ mitts he called hands. His large appendages handled the tools and bolts with experienced care.
“You kids need somethin′ to drink?” Aiden’s Dad grinned, tossing me a beer. Aiden took one from his Dad, snickering at Adley who eyed the alcohol suspiciously.
Everyone in this town was fairly lenient on letting the younger wolves drink alcohol. It took far too much to get us drunk, and parents were never away long enough to throw raging house parties. Aiden’s Dad had been giving us each a cold beer since we were thirteen. While I had nearly thrown up the first couple times, I was able to stomach the beer with ease. I took the third from his hand, planning to drink it later once the humid air had become too much. On days like this, a cold drink was much appreciated, regardless of what it tasted like.
“You excited for your birthday?” Aiden’s Dad grinned, his eyes flickering over to his son.
“Excited?” I snorted, noticing the strange look on Aiden’s face. “I’m ready to find my mate and leave this little town. I’d like to see what the rest of the world looks like.”
“Now, you better send some post cards.” Aiden’s Dad chuckled, his heartwarming grin bringing a smile to my face. “Send me a six pack of some good beer. Damn Food-Mart only has Jim Light.”
“I’ll send you a whole bar once I leave this town.” I chuckled.
“Speaking of your birthday...” Aiden coughed, smiling as my eyes met his own. “My Dad and I got you somethin’.”
“You didn’t have to do that.” I scoffed, tossing the empty beer can at his chest.
He caught it effortlessly, tossing it in the corner with a cocky grin. “I know, but we wanted to.”
“Well, what is it?” I sighed, wondering what they could’ve gotten me that didn’t come from this little town.
“Well--you’re sitting on it.” Aiden cleared his throat, his eyes guarded and waiting.
“I’m--” My jaw dropped as my hands roamed the smooth trunk of the car I sat on.
“It was Aiden’s idea.” His Dad smirked, flashing his son a grin. “Worked on it all day yesterday.”
“Oh my gosh.” I picked my jaw up from the ground, giving Aiden an incredulous look. A light pink blush lined his cheeks, something I had never seen before. His eyes were guarded, waiting for my reaction. I could see the onset of hurt in his eyes, preparing himself in case I didn’t like his gift.
“Are you kidding?” I stammered, sliding off the trunk of the car and throwing myself into Aiden’s arms. “I love it, Aiden!”
“Get the girl a car and she’ll throw herself into your arms.” Aiden scoffed, murmuring in amusement against my hair. “I should’ve thought of that sooner.”
Aiden had provided me a way out of this suffocating town, one he had sweat and bled over. His warm arms were comforting as they wrapped around my torso. His manly scent of gasoline and cedarwood was pleasant in my nose, a comforting scent I had experienced for years. Even as my heart hammered from happiness and excitement, my stomach was empty of butterflies.