Chapter Sixteen

            An indeterminable amount of time later, I peeled myself off of Penny and gathered my clothes from the floor. I didn’t check to see, but judging by the scuffle of shoes along the floor and the swish of fabric, he was dressing too.
            “I gotta get home,” he said.
            I nodded, careful to ensure our eyes didn’t meet. I was successful, but that didn’t stop him from wrapping an arm around my waist and kissing my forehead.
            I stood at the reception desk, fingers pressing into the wood, waiting for the sound of his feet on the stairs and the closing of the exterior door.  When I was sure he was gone, I locked up the office, hurrying to my car.
            It wasn’t very late; the sun still bright in the summer sky, but the events of the day had left me exhausted. I didn’t even want to think about it.
            When I walked into the house, my parents greeted me from the kitchen, where they were putting the final touches on dinner. I said hi, I think, but mostly I just wanted to get to the shower.
            I brushed my teeth until streaks of blood blossomed along my gum line. The temperature of the water in the shower was so hot that it was almost intolerable, stinging my skin, turning me lobster red. I didn’t care. I couldn’t stand the taste of Penny in my mouth; the smell of him in my hair, clinging to my body. I wanted to erase the feel of him against me.
            It wasn’t that I regretted sleeping with him. We were hot together. We always had been. But it was easier before. Then, he was popular and had a girlfriend; we had built-in boundaries. Now, I felt more pressure for this to be a big labeled “Something.” And that’s not what I wanted. Not with Penny. Not with anyone. I’d decided long ago that my life had a certain trajectory that I didn’t intend to stray from. A romantic relationship with Penny wasn’t part of the deal.
            I only got out of the shower once the water turned freezing. By the time I got downstairs, my fifteen year old brother was setting the table, turning to me with a grimace of indignation at having to complete the chore.
            “Okay, Care?” Dad asked, laying his hand on the middle of my back.
            “Yeah,” I made myself smile. “It was just a really long day.”
            Mom monopolized the dinner conversation, as usual, but she had a habit of asking each of us our opinion to check if we were listening, so I couldn’t totally space out. I dodged most of her scrutiny until I asked to be excused. She turned her laser-like eyes to me, and asked “what did you do today, Caro?”
            I shrugged. “Worked with Penny,” I said, smashing my fork into my vegetables.
            “You better not be getting into any more trouble,” she said, picking up her wineglass by the stem and swirling the remnants.
            “Sheila,” Dad said with a warning tone.
            “I’m fine, mom,” I said.
            “Uh-huh,” she said. “You were ‘fine’ the last time, too and your father and I ended up having to bail you out of jail. For the second time, might I add.”
            She did this to me about every month, or so. I hadn’t been arrested in over a year, but she was sure I would fall off the wagon at any moment. I was a perpetual disappointment to her, with my black clothes, short, dyed black hair, and talent for martial arts. She didn’t believe in the supernatural and thought I was a “hooligan.”
            “I’m not getting in any trouble,” I said. “I was with Penny all day working on a case.”
She sipped at her drink, clicking her fingernails against the table. I didn’t know what she wanted from me. Dad and I had tried to explain to her that the supernatural things whispered about around town were real, but she didn’t want anything to do with it. It almost broke up their marriage. She’d wanted to have me committed. Thinking that I was a delinquent was her way to ignore what was actually happening. Dad thought she’d chill out if we told her I’d started my own PI firm. Nope.
            Before she could start in, Dad said, “I saw Penny’s mom at the dollar store today. She told me he’d gotten into Arcadia. I’m glad he’s back on his feet after everything that happened last year.”
            I nodded, then stopped. “Wait,” I said, dropping my fork with a clunk. “What do you mean he got into Arcadia?”
            He raised an eyebrow at me. “That’s what she said. He applied a little late and wasn’t sure he’d make it, but they were happy to have him. He didn’t mention it?”
            “Yeah, of course he did. It was all he could talk about today,” breathing didn’t used to be this difficult. “May I be excused?”
            I didn’t wait for an answer, but pushed myself away from the table and hurried up the stairs. Mom yelled something at me, but I’d ceased listening.
            We’d fucked today, but he couldn’t mention, even in passing, that he decided to go to Arcadia—which meant he was joining McGregor’s pack. A decision that really seems liked something you’d want to discuss with your best friend.
            I pulled my cell phone from my pocket, intending to call him, but the thought of hearing his voice made rage pulse in my ears. I tossed the phone to the bed, pacing the length of the room to calm my irrational anger. It was great he was going to college. I didn’t think he would every leave Pine Grove after becoming a werewolf. And I wasn’t jealous. Exactly. He needed the support of the pack. This last month and a half was the closest he’d been to Past Penny since he was bitten.
            Knowing that I was overacting didn’t make me feel better. It just made me angry at myself for being so ridiculous.
            Pacing wasn’t doing any good, and I had chewed on my bottom lip until it started bleeding.
            I needed to get my mind off of everything that happened today. I snatched my laptop from my desk and climbed into bed. It was time to use some (slightly) illegal means to look into Wesley’s background.
            I found his records from Wilkesville High School, but the only address listed was a P.O. Box and the emergency contact phone number was disconnected. I doubted I’d have much more luck with his elementary school records, but I checked anyway. At first, I was right; same P.O. Box and phone number. I skimmed through the rest of the documents, not expecting to find anything of note.
But the end of the electronic file was devoted to medical and immunization records. There was something from a hospital in Columbia with a Wilkesville address listed at the bottom. I sat up straighter in bed, adjusting the zoom on Adobe Reader to make the image less blurry. The address was listed as 12 E County Road 15. I didn’t even know there was a County Road 15.
I opened up a navigation website and plugged in the address, but the site kept telling me the destination didn’t exist. I pulled up the map for Wilkesville, and tried to study the highway names. It was like trying to find Waldo.
I slammed the lid of my computer and stalked out of my room, heading for Dad’s office. He had the tendency to be kind of a hoarder, and most of the stuff he refused to part with was packed into this one room.
I flipped on the overhead light, scanning the shelves. The good thing about Dad’s obsession was that he kept everything in order. The bad thing was that he was so meticulous, I had no idea if the map I was looking for would be in the geography or South Carolina section (yeah, there were labels). I shuffled through the material on both shelves, finding the faded, improperly folded state maps on the South Carolina shelf. I searched through them until I found the only county map, copyright 1988.
I spread the map open on the floor, resuming my search. Pine Grove is in the center of the county. Riverview is on the east side by Lake Bartlett. Wilkesville is in the northwest corner, not far from a little populated stretch of marsh, fed by tributaries of the Savannah River. County Road 15 was deep into this swampland, right on the edge of the county line.
I debated on whether or not to go. I really did. But with everything today—Wesley’s, suicide, fighting with Penny, having sex with Penny, learning that he was keeping his admission to Arcadia College a secret—there wasn’t any other choice for me to make.
I folded the map and stuffed it into the back pocket of my jeans, before running to my bedroom and grabbing my car keys.  
The GPS on my phone couldn’t locate County Road 15, but I programmed it to take me to State Route 122, the road that intersected with County Road 15.
There wasn’t much traffic out at nine o’clock on a Tuesday night. There weren’t any signs of life at all once I turned onto the state highway. It allowed me to drive slow enough to check street signs for the obscure county road. I drove fifteen miles before I found it.
The pavement was cracked, grass and weeds growing up between the breaks in the concrete, but it wasn’t as bad as I expected. Tall, dense, forest grew right next to the street; roots pushed through the pavement in some places, but after a few miles, the trees thinned and then disappeared altogether.
I couldn’t see much, but the reflection of the stars on the water meant I’d reached the swampland. My stomach tightened at the thought of how little separated the road from the (probably) snake infested waters.
Further and further I drove, with no sign of habitation, or anything other than swamp. The road had ceased being an official road, instead becoming nothing more than a gravel path.  
It seemed more and more likely that the address listed on the hospital records was faked. I would’ve turned around, but there was wetland on either side, so I kept driving.
As more and more miles passed, panic curled at my toes and twisted up my spine. And then—far up ahead, the glowing gleam of electric lights.
I pushed down harder on the gas paddle, throwing gravel as I accelerated. There was a small bend in the road. Once past the curve, the left side of the path turned from marsh to solid ground. There were houses; with lights blazing in every window.
Calling them houses was pretty generous. They weren’t much more than clapboard shacks. Some of the windows were busted out; others had makeshift tarp roofs. They weren’t all in states of total disrepair, but none of them were pretty.
The lights were on but every house was empty of inhabitants. There were no cars parked around the area, and no typical sounds of human life. Just crickets, frogs, and lapping water.
The entire drive out here had been unsettling, but this was by far the worst. Ghost towns are, by their very nature, creepy. There is something inherently terrifying about a place that looks populated, but is devoid of humanity. Like everyone disappeared from the earth without a trace at the same moment; lights on and dinner on the table.
 I couldn’t get out of there fast enough.
I would’ve made it if the wind hadn’t picked up, bringing to my nostrils the sweet, rancid smell of rotting flesh.
It didn’t take long to find them. Past the empty houses, in a small clearing, was a shambling mass of the undead.
Unlike their previous counterparts, the sound of crackling grass under my feet caused them to growl and strain forward, gnashing their teeth at the prospect of a fresh meal.

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