I groped around for my phone to turn off the shrill alarm, dreams of showing up for tests in my underwear fading, thank God. Maybe now I could get another five minutes…
“Mori! Get up already. Late is not an option today!” Mom’s sing-song voice called up, like she could feel me snuggling down into the covers.
But she was right. Groaning, I got up and went through my morning routine on autopilot. Testing nightmares were always rough on me, but I had this. I was confident, I knew the material, and I’d be fine. You’re gonna crush these tests, and then it’s goodbye high school, goodbye small-town Maine and hello college! Telling myself that over and over didn’t make me any less tired, but it did make me feel better.
Cracking a huge yawn, I slid into my seat at the table and reached for the cereal.
“Another test dream?” Dad asked, popping a kiss on my forehead. It made me smile in spite of the anxiety. “Let me guess, came to class in your pajamas?”
“Oh worse. Underwear only.”
My dad gave me a sympathetic shudder that made me laugh as I poured out my breakfast.
Mom squeezed my shoulder as she put a glass of OJ next to me. “Good thing you can ace those tests with or without clothes,” she said with a wink.
I shoveled cereal into my mouth, trying desperately to wake up, and the equations running through my head were not helping. But when I saw the fancy black envelope half hidden by bills on the table, the litany of numbers jerked to a stop.
Snatching it up, I barely took the time to read my name before tearing it open. What if it’s my acceptance from Harvard? Please, please let it be my acceptance from Harvard!
But when I tore open the envelope… It was definitely not from Harvard. The more I read, the more ridiculous it was. I couldn’t even be disappointed.
“What’ve you got there, hon?” Dad asked, a smile already playing on his lips. I loved how my dad was always on the verge of smiling.
Grinning, I read out loud, “Congratulations. You have been selected to attend Brighthaven Academy for elite Shifters.” I was laughing by the time I finished, and my parents exchanged a look.
“I know, right?” I said, scanning the letter again. The words legacy, duty, elite, and extraordinary appeared several times, and I had to chuckle again.
This couldn’t possibly be for me. Brighthaven was basically the Harvard for Shifters, extremely rare beings who kept to themselves and away from humans. And were in love with themselves, according to this. Too bad last I checked I was definitely human.
“You guys are right,” I said, putting down the letter and going back to my cereal. “I must be a genius; I’m getting into schools I didn’t even apply for now.”
I slid the envelope closer to examine it a little more—it wasn’t every day a human got their hands on anything to do with Shifters—and realized it wasn’t addressed to me at all. The name on the envelope read, Makiko Suzuki not Moriko Setsuki.
I rolled my eyes. Typical. Some idiot admin must’ve found an address with the closest matching name. I hoped Shifters used email too, because if not, Makiko would be missing out on her education. But that was decidedly not my problem. Finals however, were, and I was going to be late if I didn’t leave now.
After chugging the last of my juice, I dropped my dishes into the sink and gave my mom a quick peck on the cheek, then one on my dad’s forehead, like he did me. It was kind of our thing, and something I’d really miss when it was time to leave for college.
“Good luck, sweetheart,” Dad said, giving me a quick squeeze.
“She doesn’t need luck,” Mom said warmly. “You’ve got this, Mori.” And, as nervous as I was, and as bad as the dreams had been…I believed her.
And besides, I thought with a snort, if the Harvard thing doesn’t pan out, there’s always Brighthaven.
“Something, something sunshine!” I had no idea what the words to the song blasting through my speakers were, and I didn’t care. It matched my mood perfectly.
To say I was feeling good about my finals was an understatement. I killed it! Absolutely slaughtered! Harvard couldn’t deny me now.
Maybe I was feeling nostalgic, but reflecting on this year, my whole experience at Park High had actually been pretty good. Granted, this had been the longest I’d been a student in one school. Our family moved nearly every year for my mom’s job, which made making friends a lot harder. But soon, I’d be on my way to a good college somewhere—Harvard—and be able to stay some place longer than a year for once!
Turning down the music as I drove onto our street, I got a strange twinge in my chest. I’d always had good instincts, so as much as I wanted to brush it off and tell myself to stop being paranoid, I couldn’t shake the shiver of foreboding as I pulled into the driveway…I really hated being right sometimes.
The lights were off. Dad should be working in his office, and on big tests, Mom would take a long lunch to come home and eat with us. They should be here. Stepping out of my car, I froze. The door was half open. Never, ever, in my entire life had my mom allowed the doors to stay open. She had a thing about bugs.
A sick sense of dread curdled in my stomach as I walked toward it. The feeling got so strong I almost didn’t go inside, but I had to know. I pushed the door open all the way and went in, about to call for my parents, but my voice died in my throat.
The house was trashed. The bookshelf beside the door was on its side, books and pages everywhere. My sneakers crunched on glass shards from my mother’s animal figurines and from the picture frames knocked off the walls.
The security alarm was blaring so loud it hurt my ears, but it managed to snap me out of my shock. I frantically dashed over the mess to try to shut it off. When it finally stopped, the silence was almost more deafening than the alarm had been.
“Dad!” I called, heading for his office. “Mom!”
It was in the same state. Books, papers, pictures smashed and trampled, like a tornado hit inside. It was the same everywhere I checked as I tore through the house, calling for them, but only silence and destruction answered.
It was in their bedroom, the farthest back in the house and therefore the last place I checked, that my knees buckled, and I hit the floor.
Slash marks. There were slash marks on the door and along the walls, like knives had scored clean through them. The ugly wallpaper they both hated peeled back like skin on a gaping wound. My vision started swimming in and out, and I tried to focus on something, anything to keep from passing out with the panic thrumming through my body. There. My mom’s shoe on the red rug.
Except my parents didn’t have a red rug in their room. Blood. My mother’s shoe was sitting in a pool of blood soaked into the carpet. Frantic, I scrambled backward, slamming into the wall in the hallway, and my hand touched something wet and sticky. When I brought it to my face, it was red.
“Mom! Dad! Mom! Dad, please,” I sobbed frantically, crawling away from the blood smears on the floor, but there was no sign of them anywhere.
Maybe they weren’t home. Maybe it wasn’t their blood. My hands were trembling so hard it took several tries to get my phone from my pocket and hit the call button. It connected on the first ring.
Nearly sobbing with relief, I cried, “Oh, thank God, Mom—"
“Hello, you’ve reached Alyn Setsuki. Please leave your name, number—”
I ended the call, shaking even harder. Dad next.
“We’re sorry, the number you have dialed is not in service. Please check the—”
This couldn’t be happening. I tried to wrap my head around what was going on. A robbery gone wrong, maybe? Or maybe I hadn’t woken up this morning, and it was all some elaborate nightmare because this couldn’t be real.
I did the next best thing I could think of and dialed 911. This time, I actually got a person, but just as I heard their voice, I also heard sirens turning onto my street. The security alarm must have brought the police! I rushed to the window at the end of the hall, and sure enough, a cop car was skidding to a halt in front of my house. I pressed end on the call and took a second to breathe. It would be okay. It would be fine. The cops were here, and they could figure out who did this and find my parents. Because they had to be alive. I couldn’t…I wouldn’t think otherwise. I rubbed my eyes with the backs of my hands, careful not to get blood on my face, and heard their doors slam as they got out.
“Looks like they made a clean job of it,” one officer was saying.
“Shut up,” a second, gruffer voice said. “They may have gotten the parents, but look at the car in the driveway. Someone is still here, and I bet it’s the kid.”
“Shit,” the first voice said, “they wouldn’t have been able to get her yet since she’d have been at school.”
Their words chilled me to the bone. What the hell? Were they implying this was...on purpose? What could anyone want with me or my parents?
Frozen in fear, I listened as the second cop said, “All right, we’ll take care of the kid ourselves, then we’ll get the clean-up crews organized. Let’s go.”
No, no, no, no, no.
Frantically, I ran for the back door. As I passed through the kitchen, I saw the Brighthaven letter on the table. Without hesitation, I snatched it and the envelope and bolted out the back hoping the cops didn’t see me, my terrified brain putting the fractured bits of an idea together.
I had nowhere to go, no family I knew of, or friends to run to. I couldn’t trust the police. Someone wanted me dead… or worse, and I didn’t know who or why. All I knew was I couldn’t stay here.
Maybe, I thought, looking at the crumpled letter in my hand, I needed to disappear entirely…
I was trembling and exhausted as I stood before the golden gates of Brighthaven Academy.
It had been a desperate time as I tried to stay off the grid. I couldn’t risk sending a reply directly to the academy, and getting here had been hell. Of course, the Shifter school would be in a remote forest on the far side of a mountain, right over the Canadian border.
Above me, the giant, embossed BA on the gates seemed to mock me. This was insane. I couldn’t just pretend to be another person, let alone a Shifter! But, like I’d told myself a thousand times… I didn’t have a choice. Not if I wanted to stay alive. I was beyond desperate.
I walked through the gates, surprised at how easily they opened, and walked up to the intimidating castle that was the academy. Austere gray stone, complete with towers, gargoyles and the golden Brighthaven flag flying proudly above it all.
I could hear my dad’s voice in my head, the last words I’d heard him say, “Good luck, sweetheart.”
A human girl hiding out in Shifter school? Luck wasn’t enough. I was going to need a miracle to pull this off.