The Wolves choose when we die. Our city is well aware of this fact, but the rest of the country is struggling to accept it.
“The government brainwashed civilians to become terrorists!”
I scoff at the latest conspiracy theory to dominate social media, viewing the short news clip as I stroll down the hallway at Parkhill Hospital.
“Saw it with my own eyes,” the video continues. “People with electrodes on their heads, chanting gibberish!”
There’s a shrill cry as I approach the ER. Then, a crash. I turn off my phone, run toward the noise. Nurse’s instinct tells me this is more commotion than the usual patient high on crack.
The automatic doors open to the unit’s back entrance. Five surgeons dash through a hallway toward the exit in a distinct formation. One surgeon holds a blood-soaked instrument—a three-sided knife, hollow in the middle, with edges inside and out sharp enough to slice through metal. I’ve never seen one up close: A Triangle Blade.
It’s the terrorists.
“Wolves!” I yell. A ‘surgeon’ spins around. Hidden under the scrubs, surgical cap, and face shield is the infamous black mask with white lines around the eyes and mouth, resembling a wolf—the uniform that earned the terrorists their name.
A paramedic in a Houston Fire Department tee shirt darts in front of me. I recognize Brandon from the Day of the Dead tattoo sleeve on his left arm.
“No!” I grab the back of his shirt and use all my weight to stop him. “Do you have a death wish? They’ll kill you if you get in their way, Brandon. You know that.”
Breathing hard, we watch security guards cower and scramble out of the Wolves’ way, clearing a path for their escape. They vanish through the door. Once the Wolves are in the clear after killing their target, they scatter and disappear.
Brandon notices something behind me. “The patient.”
A man is hoisted from an EMS gurney to an ER stretcher. The stab wound to his abdomen is deep enough to have severed his aorta. The blood dripping from a forehead laceration is reminiscent of the one on my dad when they pulled him out of the debris after the first attack by the Wolves.
My co-workers prepare for a massive blood transfusion. It’s clear, though, the victim has lost more blood than can be replaced. He won’t survive. Doctors and nurses hover around him, their shoes soaked in crimson.
“Any suggestions?” the attending physician asks. No one answers. “Time of death 14:02.”
Brandon runs a hand through his hair, pulling at it in frustration. He shoots a deadly scowl at me, then storms out the door and into the ambulance bay. He knows I’m right behind him because when he’s far enough away from the doors, he whips around to yell without anyone else hearing. We’ve perfected this method of fighting over the years.
“Why’d you stop me, Resi? I could have caught up to them.”
“And what? Take them on, five against one with nothing but your manly fists? Who do you think you are, B?”
He presses his lips into a thin line. He has no retort, so there’s a clear opening to lay the guilt-trip on thick.
“What am I supposed to tell Sarah if you get yourself killed? She doesn’t deserve to lose another parent.”
Brandon’s features soften. He gives me a that’s not fair glare, but I refuse to give into it. I step toward him. “And I don’t deserve to lose someone else either.”
Got him. He flops onto the curb, head hanging between his broad shoulders. Anger still radiates from him, and his skin seems darker than usual, like he’s been in the sun.
I sit next to him. My shoe grates a pebble against concrete. I kick it and watch it land on a red line reserving the area for ambulance parking. “Did you know he was the Wolves’ target?”
Brandon bobs his head up and down. “Yeah. No one else around him was injured. We called ahead. The hospital had plenty of notice to call for military reinforcement and get security set up. Security,” he spits. “They’re a joke. What’s the point if they won’t protect the victims? They didn’t even try to stop them.”
No one has ever killed, or even incapacitated, a Wolf. They seem indestructible. We don’t know who they are, where they came from, or why they attack. But we’ve noticed that, as long as someone else is their target, you’ll stay alive if you keep your distance. That’s why the security guards didn’t interfere. Soldiers are stationed everywhere in anticipation of attacks, but their presence hasn’t made much of a difference. Brandon knows that and still went after the Wolves unarmed.
Brandon’s partners roll their gurney out to their ambulance. Kyle is a stocky, bald man in his early forties with square shoulders and a short neck. He’s quiet, but intimidating, with a badass-factor as thick as his dark mustache. Firemen and women are required to have their EMT or paramedic license. Kyle trained Brandon and they’ve been partners for as long as I’ve known him. He was there for me the day everything went to hell, so although we’re not particularly close, I have a special appreciation for him.
Travis is new to the truck, and I have yet to spend much time with him. He’s young, energetic, and seems talkative. I’m sure he annoys Kyle. Still, I can’t help but think they’ll be good for each other.
“You know, Kyle and Travis don’t run after psychopaths.” I nudge Brandon’s shoulder with mine.
He gives a short laugh. “Travis might once he figures out what the hell he’s doing. Kyle’s too old—would probably break a hip.”
There’s a wry smile in Brandon’s sideways glance. He has cooled down enough to move on. He scrubs his hand down his face, then turns toward me, eyes soft. “You okay? The injuries on that guy were similar to your dad’s.”
“I’m fine,” I answer too quickly. It’s a lie, of course, but it’s one he knew I would tell. I’m not sure why he even asked. I haven’t been fine since the Wolves left me without parents. But if I don’t dwell on it, I can fake it enough to feel somewhat close to being fine. I’m fine-ish.
“Of course, you are,” he says with a disbelieving smirk.
“Come on.” I use Brandon’s shoulder to lever myself off the ground. “The rest of these patients aren’t going to heal themselves.” As we walk, I playfully punch his arm. “You ruined what I thought would be a slow day.”
“There was an attack at the hospital? Are you okay?”
We’ve only been dating a few months, but I can tell by the panic in Cole’s voice that he cares about me.
“Completely unharmed,” I say. “How’s the conference?”
I hear a hmf! and a heavy sigh. I imagine him falling onto a fluffy hotel bed.
“Weird,” he says. “Miami is just now getting their first Wolf attacks, so they’re in the hunker-down-and-hide phase. Hardly anyone showed up.”
We responded the same way in Houston until we realized the Wolves would find their targets anyway. During the hiding months, the killings continued in victims’ homes. The city eventually reopened, but we stay in small groups so fewer people were hurt during attacks. Although we have warned the rest of the country about the Wolves, it’s hard to understand until you experience it up close. Many think it’s a hoax until it happens to someone they know.
“They’ll figure it out soon,” I say.
“I miss you.”
I smile warmly and run my hand over the sweater Cole left in the front seat of my car. Even before we started dating, he had been a huge support since losing my parents. Missing him this early in our relationship is unexpected, but it’s there. “You too. I’m at Joey’s Market now.”
I pull into the parking lot and turn off the engine. A black van is parked two spots away. The windows are tinted. I can’t see inside.
My heart beats faster.
“Be safe,” Cole says.
I bring my key back to the ignition. I know they’ll get me if I’m their target, but I can entertain them with a car chase first.
“Resi? Everything okay?”
The van reverses out of the parking spot and drives away.
I release a breath. “Yeah. Everything is good.” I recall a popular internet meme from earlier this month: Is it a Wolf or is my neighbor just taking the trash out in the dark? We’re always on alert, but it’s usually nothing.
Cole and I say goodbye and I head into the market, stopping to glance over the growing number of flyers for missing persons spanning the wall outside; countless adults and nine children. I continue into the market when I don’t recognize anyone on the new posts.
Joey’s is the closest convenience store to my house. The owner knows me well enough to save a bottle of my favorite wine when they run low. But tonight, they’re fully stocked. I grab a Pinot Noir before heading to the checkout counter, digging in my purse for cash.
Suddenly, I crash into the counter in front of me, dropping the change I had fished from my wallet. The bottle of wine shatters on the floor. I can’t catch my breath. A ringing in my ears grows louder each second. I see double.
I desperately hold myself up on the counter. Shadows run around. Muffled yelling. I focus on the surveillance mirror above me: Black uniforms with gray sleeves. Black and white masks. They carry strange guns, Triangle Blades—Wolves.
I reach back and touch my head where it throbs, but I fail to hold myself up with one arm. My shoulder lands on the glass shards of the wine bottle. I groan. My skin is slick as red wine seeps through my scrubs. I try to raise my hand to my eyes to see if my head is bleeding where I touched it, but my arm is too heavy and drops to my stomach. The fluorescent lights above me fade, and now, all I see is darkness.
I blink. I recline on a soft sofa in a bright living room with red and gold accents. I feel safe. Relaxed. But I shouldn’t. I don’t know where I am.
I spot a cup of coffee on a table beside me and reach for it.
A man’s hand picks it up and lifts it to my mouth.
There is no man. That is not my hand.
I peek through the French doors. Giggling and the stomping of young feet run in my direction. Children I somehow know are coming to greet me.
The doors burst open. A girl slides on the wood floor in her white tights with no shoes. The boy with her looks younger. His Spiderman tennis shoes light up every time he steps.
“Papa! Papa! You’re home.” They jump into my lap, wrap their arms around my neck.
“Papa?” I ask.
Did I ask? I try again. “I’m not your Papa.”
I’m speaking, but the words won’t leave my body. “What’s happening?” I wonder aloud, but my voice echoes back to me like I’m in a cave.
One more time. This is ridiculous.
Vibrations in my chest and movement of my jaw tell me that my voice is working this time. “I’m home. I missed you.”
My own gasp echoes back after a deep, male voice resonates from my chest. I think I am dreaming, but this all feels so real.
“Nico?” A woman calls from another room.
Nico. That’s me.
“Yes?” My booming voice replies.
“Dinner will be ready soon.”
I gently squeeze the child embracing my neck on the right. The girl, maybe six-years-old, beams at me with a proud grin displaying two missing teeth. “Amore, clean up your hands and help Mama set the table.”
“Okay, Papa.” She pecks my cheek, then runs toward the voice preparing dinner.
“You too, Patatino.”
I am killing this Italian, I think, after effortlessly using two Italian terms of endearment I didn’t even know I knew.
The boy’s arms tighten around me. His head burrows into my neck. “No, Papa. Hold me for one more minute.”
I chuckle, my chest rumbling. “You know, Patatino, to be a good Papa one day, you must learn to cook and clean and provide for your family. That starts with learning to set the table.”
He pulls back to look at me. Sky blue glasses frame his winsome brown eyes. His cheeks are rosy and have some baby fat that makes my heart swell.
He holds his head high. “I’m going to be a Papa just like you when I’m big.”
“Well then, you better get going and help your sister.”
“Not without you.” He throws himself back around my neck.
“Okay, okay.” I stand, holding him close, and he wraps his legs around my waist. My hand—the one that isn’t my hand, but a man’s—reaches into my slacks to empty the pocket. I set its contents on the side table: a wallet, keys, business cards, and two Tylenol pills. I reach for the coffee, finish it before heading to the kitchen.
My body jolts as I carry the boy across the living room, like someone is moving me, but no one is there. I feel hands on my skin, turning and positioning me, but it’s only the boy and me. I want to hunt for the cause of the disturbance, but my head only allows me to face forward.
Another jolt and my vision blurs. I blink to clear my eyes, but the room around me and the boy in my embrace fade. My arms weaken when I try to hold him tighter. The smell of spices reaches my nose and is swept away just as quickly.
I dart my eyes around the room when I awake. I’m back at work in the ER at Parkhill Hospital. “What the f—”
“Resi,” Edda says. She scoots forward in the chair next to my bed. No, a stretcher. I’m on a stretcher. “I’m so glad you’re awake.” She takes my hand.
My brain is still trying to catch up to my circumstances. I’m confused, but having my best friend here is comforting. Her jet-black hair is tied into a messy bun, and the bronze skin of her face is stained with tears.
Brandon is asleep in a chair with his long legs stretched out in front of him. His eight-year-old daughter, Sarah, is sound asleep on his chest. Edda isn’t wearing her scrubs, and Brandon changed out of his paramedic uniform. I assess my own attire—a hospital gown. That confirms it. I’m not here because I’m on the clock.
The back of my head throbs. I reach back.
“Leave it alone. Stitches,” Edda tells me. “No brain bleed, so you’ll live. They got some glass out of your shoulder too.”
Right. I stopped to get a bottle of Pino. Leave it to me to drop the wine and commit a party foul in the middle of a terrorist attack.
“What happened?” I ask. “I know I was at the market, but that’s it.” All I remember after that is a living room of red and gold. Such a strange dream.
“You know those weapons the Wolves use that look like paintball guns?” Edda begins.
“You got paintballed. Except the paintballs are golf ball-sized bullets that are shot at a speed that could crack a head open and have a bounce to them. A man and a woman died at the scene. The impact probably killed them instantly. We assume the one that hit you bounced a few times first, so you weren’t hit quite as hard. The store owner, Joey, gave the paramedics the bullet.” Edda reaches into her purse and pulls out a round, silver bullet, about one and a half inches in diameter. “I thought you could sift through your parents’ research to see if you can find anything on this type of metal.”
I examine the ball, taking it from Edda’s hand. “Why didn’t Joey give it to the police or military?”
Edda shrugs. “Said he recognized you from the store and didn’t want evidence in the wrong hands. It’s hard to know who to trust these days.”
I offer the bullet back to her. “Hold onto it for me?”
My parents might indeed have research on metal that bounces. My dad, Astor, was a world-renowned neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. My mom, June, was an infectious disease physician and pharmaceutical scientist. They owned the Kepler Research Laboratory in the basement of the building next to Parkhill Hospital where they researched everything in their fields, as well as anything that interested them at a given time. Before their attack, Dad studied ways to digitally project thoughts, and mom was developing a new cure for pain. They always dabbled in side projects too. Mom was particularly interested in special materials, so bouncing metal would have piqued her curiosity.
But I haven’t stepped foot into the research lab since they were attacked ten months ago, and curious or not, I’ll be damned if I go now. There’s too much them there. The Kepler lab holds their life’s work, and about eighty percent of my childhood memories. Being there without them, knowing all that was left undone, it’s too painful. I don’t do that kind of pain anymore.
Brandon stirs, letting out a gravelly hum as he takes in his surroundings. His tired brown eyes crinkle at the corners. He keeps his voice low so as not to wake Sarah. “Hey, Rez,” he says. “And you thought it was going to be a slow day.”
“Papa? Papa, no!”
I straighten my back. “Who was that?” The voice is young, familiar.
Brandon kisses Sarah’s head and repositions her on the chair before moving over to the stretcher. “The other victims who died on the scene were brought in. It sounds like one of their families arrived.”
I shake my head, like jostling my brain around my skull will help put the jumbled pieces back into place. It doesn’t. It just reminds me that my head hurts. I force myself to take deep, long breaths. It was only a dream.
“Rez? You okay?” Brandon places a hand on my knee, and it refocuses my attention. I release the sheets I had unknowingly seized into my fists.
“Yeah,” I rasp. I clear my throat. “Déjà vu or something. I had a weird dream before I woke up.”
Another voice sounds through the hall. “Nico? Oh, Nico. Please, no!”
“Nico.” I swing my feet off the bed. I ignore the friends calling my name and I’m out of my room in seconds. My legs shake, but I keep moving forward. I grab a door panel to fling myself into a room where several people gather. A woman weeps over the chest of a man lying lifelessly on the stretcher. Her hands cling to his blood-soaked button-up shirt.
Children whimper. I creep toward them. My hand trembles as I raise it to the shoulder of a boy. He turns around at my touch, tears streaming out of his eyes framed by sky-blue glasses.
I stumble backward, grasping at my chest. “How…” I barely get one word out. I can’t breathe. I struggle to inhale, but the more I try, the dizzier and more panicked I become. A large figure steps in front of me. My body leaves the ground, moving further away from the boy.
“Wait!” I reach for him, but my erratic breathing chokes down any more words. Even if I could say words, my brain has lost the ability to form anything into logical sentences.
Tile cools my legs when I land on the floor and lean against the wall. A paper bag covers my nose and mouth. Brandon kneels in front of me. I realize he’s the one who carried me out of Nico’s room. Paper bag, I’m hyperventilating. I close my eyes and take deeper breaths through the bag.
“Four seconds in, four seconds out,” Brandon says.
He counts to four. I swear he’s taking too long to get there.
“One, two, three, four.”
I follow his advice, inhaling against my spasming lungs. One, two, three, four. The dizziness starts to subside. My breathing regulates. One, two, three, four. I drop the bag.
“Resi, what just happened?”
Edda sits next to me, but I can’t take my eyes off Nico’s room, the curtain now hiding the grieving family behind the closed glass door.
“I have no idea,” I say, racking my brain for an explanation.
I’m a nurse. I’m used to dead people. But inhabiting their bodies in my sleep?
Oh, hell no.