Of all the things I had to face that day, the prospect of sticking my hand down someone else’s pants as part of my Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, just didn’t seem right. Mind you, no one was wearing those filthy pants, but even a gal in therapy should have limits. Today anyway.
According to my therapist, I’d somehow give in to my obsessive-compulsive behaviors less often if I occasionally went out of my comfort zone. Still, in my opinion, my current assignment wouldn’t help me that much.
Five minutes earlier, standing inside the lobby of the local Jiffy Lube, my best friend, Aggie, had given the hot new mechanic a harrowing speech that left me wondering just how far she’d go to help me out. “My good friend Natalya here is one of those clean freaks. It’d be awesome if you’d help her out by letting her put her hand down your pants.
“Pants pocket, that is.” Her eyebrows danced while she grinned devilishly.
So, there I was, ready to do the deed with the mechanic’s grimy uniform.
“Oh, just stick your paw in there so we can go home,” Aggie begged. “Your mom said she’s making her special pot roast.”
How would soiling my germ-free hands with a journey into the grimy pocket of the admittedly attractive mechanic help me with my obsessive-compulsive disorder? I suspected that, in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t really about my well-being. Agatha McClure just wanted the mechanic to take his coveralls off.
“Let the healing begin,” she purred as he bent over. The lean, yet hard lines of his body were quite evident under his jeans and white T-shirt.
Healing, my ass. She was staring him down like she was a werewolf on a full-moon prowl and he was the next rabbit she planned to snag.
My head swiveled to catch her running her fingers through her red hair. It was a habit she always fell into when she saw a good-looking man. She had such a blissful expression on her face, I felt bad taking the moment away from her. Eh, let her leer over him for a few minutes more. I had an emergency pack of baby wipes for days like today.
So I shoved my hand into the pocket and tried to think happy thoughts. Find that Zen place that didn’t involve freaking out over how slimy and lint-laden the pocket was. By the time my hand came out, it resembled a chocolate ice-cream bar with nuts sprinkled on it. Those “nuts” were balls of fluff.
“Well, look at that,” Aggie said with pride. “You stuck your paw in and you’re still alive.”
I handed the mechanic his coveralls with a straight face, and then scowled at Aggie. This exercise sucked. Ever since I’d joined my therapy group, Aggie was constantly searching for golden opportunities like this one to “help” me. As a werewolf with an obsessive-compulsive disorder, I began therapy because I tended to stress out over the little things. I still do, mind you, but I’ve been learning lately to try to focus on the important stuff, like bonding with my family. Over the past few years, I’ve been estranged from them due to my disorder. I’ve made some progress, especially with my dad, but like any issue that dredges up painful memories, the healing had taken some patience.
However, that was a subject I didn’t want to fixate on right now. It was already hard enough to deal with this little exercise. While I cleaned off my “ice-cream bar” with baby wipes (many of them), I gazed through the window of Jiffy Lube out to the main street of South Toms River. Not many people may know it, but New Jersey in the winter is beautiful. Especially with a light dusting of snow. On the way here, I’d driven past South Toms River Park. There’s something about barren trees extending toward the sky. When they’re covered with just the right amount of fallen snow, they can be quite calming to the soul.
Even from inside the lobby, I could taste the winter on my tongue. With it came the promise of holiday decorations and Christmas cookies. The most perfect time of the year.
Once the oil change was done, we left. Aggie strolled to the passenger side of my Nissan Altima—a smug smile on her face—along with a coupon for a free oil change in her hand. I would bet good money the guy had snuck his number on there.
I shook my head with a grin. You couldn’t keep an outspoken wolf like Aggie down. We’d known each other for a long time. A few months ago, she’d left New York City to travel west, but a pit stop at my place had ended up as a permanent arrangement. I was grateful to have her company, even with her quirks. Really, they weren’t that bad. And although my problems constantly haunted me, Aggie’s own issue—an overeating disorder—didn’t bother her as much. Case in point: Once comfortable in the passenger seat, she whipped out a snack-sized bag of Cheetos and munched away.
I turned down the street to my parents’ house, and Aggie gave me a strange look. “You do realize we need to pick up my cakes at your place, don’t you?”
I’d completely forgotten about her baking spree this weekend. How many cakes had she made? Usually, I simply shrugged off her cooking—especially when she cleaned up after herself. But as I drove around the block to head back toward my place, a heavy weight formed in my stomach at the thought of going home.
I’d mentally prepared myself for the trip to my parents’ place; returning to my own home would be another unwanted reminder of my problems.
After a few minutes driving through the outskirts of South Toms River, I reached my house. On my good days, seeing the two-level cottage, with its bright red shutters and whitewashed wood, made me feel safe. Its surrounding woods created a haven from the outside. But on my not-so-good ones it was unnerving.
I pulled into the garage but didn’t get out of the car. It seemed like a good idea to just let Aggie fetch her food. Of course, my partner-in-crime had other plans.
Her head peered around the door. “A little help, please?”
Instead of getting out, I said, “For what?”
“Nat, get your ass outta the car and help me carry the cakes. What’s your problem anyway?”
I tapped the steering wheel three times. Then twice more. I should just get it over with. But after all the time I’d spent preparing myself for a visit to my parents’ home . . . I could undo it with one look—one reminder. Thoughts of my house—or should I say, its contents—wasn’t something I wanted weighing on my mind while I was at my parents’.
Normal people let things go. Time to pretend to be normal and help my friend. I got out of the car.
The hallway between my garage and kitchen was clear. Like it always was. In the kitchen, Aggie stood with her hands on her hips. With a groan, she shoved a cake container in my hands as I approached her, and I caught a decadent whiff of carrot cake with butter cream icing.
I tried to focus on the cake, on turning around and marching back to the car. But beyond the kitchen lay the living room. And, with it, my shame. Renewed and growing again. Stack after stack of white boxes with holiday ornaments mocked me. Christmas ornaments, Hanukkah candles, and even elaborate Kwanzaa displays. All of them taunting me with a reminder that I’d be facing a certain someone at my parents’ home. And that someone, a relative, saw me as a hoarder and didn’t appreciate all the changes I’d made.
On any other day, seeing those boxes and knowing what beautiful things they held would’ve brought me inner peace. They’d definitely sheltered me during the long days since I’d been ostracized from my pack.
I reminded myself that some things had changed in my life, like Aggie living here. I glanced at the boxes again and bit my lower lip.
While other things haven’t changed at all.
I scrambled out of the house with Aggie not far behind. She struggled to balance three cake containers and managed to get them into the car with only one wobble. As her best friend, I should’ve done a better job helping her, but I just couldn’t shake my doubts. I wanted to be well. Be normal. And sometimes coming home didn’t help that.
Ten minutes later, we pulled up to my parents’ place. Cars filled the street and driveway. Evidence that everyone had arrived already.
I checked myself for the third time in the rearview mirror. Not a single brown hair was out of place. My blouse and skirt were clean (no surprise there), but I couldn’t shake the feeling that something about me was screwed up and wasn’t fixable.
Aggie opened her car door then noticed I hadn’t done the same. “You have plans to come inside?”
“Nat, what’s wrong now? It’s not as if you haven’t been here before.”
“She’s here,” I mumbled.
Aggie rolled her eyes. “Oh, give me a break. Put on your big-girl panties and just brush it off.”
Aggie didn’t mention the name of the woman I referred to, but I knew we’d see her soon enough. After just one hundred feet, I would reach the house, knock on the door, and then see that particular person opening it. Every step was unnerving. The thought of my dad’s cousin greeting me at the door was worse.
As the matriarch of my family in Maine, “Auntie” Yelena Torchinovich led her brood with an iron paw. She’d come here a few weeks ago for my brother Alex’s wedding and had decided to stay for an extended visit. She claimed all sorts of reasons—from catching up with my dad to having missed spending quality time with her relatives. Certainly, in the past ten years, she hadn’t shown such eagerness to be with the family.
Auntie Yelena stood about an inch taller than me, with thin lips and eyes that conveyed her thoughts—and right now, staring at me, they were black and unwelcoming. Her short and sharp black hair added to her dark impression. I stared back at her. From the way her eyes formed slits, I was returning her gaze far longer than she preferred. No lower-ranking wolf stared down a higher-ranking one without repercussions.
“Quite a persistent little thing,” she said. “I think you’ve forgotten your place—”
“Hi, Yelena.” Aggie walked around me and entered the house. The move forced Yelena to step back, thus allowing me to step past her. I shifted my eyes to the floor and carried the cake into the house. For once I was grateful that Aggie was a dominant female.
All around me, my parents’ home was alive with activity. The dinner had started already, so everyone sat at the tables set up in the dining room and out into the living room. To any stranger, the whole scene would’ve seemed noisy and crowded. But to us it was normal. I reveled in this chaos—I had missed it.
I could feel Yelena’s heated gaze following us as Aggie and I headed to the kitchen.
While I tried to shake off my aunt’s oh-so-warm welcome, Aggie appeared to be relishing the loud conversations. Smatterings of English blended with bursts of Russian. Even though Aggie couldn’t understand the Russian parts, she felt at home among the Stravinskys. Under most circumstances, I would’ve enjoyed dinner here, too. As the weather got colder, my mother gave in to her urge to roast anything that could be herded, caught, and quartered. According to my nose, the meal would be extra tasty tonight. No one could resist the siren call of the savory scent of grain-fed Angus beef. To top it off, I knew the meat would be succulent and dressed with thick homemade gravy.
We reached the oversized kitchen to find my mother waiting for us. Thankfully, Overlord Yelena Torchinovich had not followed us this far, instead taking her seat at the dinner table.
Even as her guests ate, my fair-haired mother continued to mind her pots and keep the food coming. She quietly offered us some Russian salami with cheese and then assessed Aggie’s cakes.
Aggie said, “Everything smells divine, Mrs. Stravinsky.”
I expected my mom to glow with pride, but she only offered a small smile and gestured for us to go back to the dining room and eat. “Don’t let the food get too cold,” was all she said.
For Aggie and her never-ending appetite, Mom had effectively rung the dinner bell. With glee, she made a beeline for the table. Naturally, only two spaces were left. Both of them were right across from Auntie Yelena. How convenient.
Before sitting down, though, I approached my grandma and greeted her. After I kissed both of her cheeks, she whispered, “I’m glad you came.” Grandma Lasovskaya’s face might be wrinkled from centuries of living as a werewolf, but her brown eyes remained young, always shining with the warmth of her love for her family.
My dad sat at the head of the table eating a steaming bowl of soup. When one of my uncles slapped his shoulder after telling a god-awful joke, I expected him to laugh—or at least snort—but he didn’t. I guess I wasn’t the only one who didn’t feel like taking people’s crap today.
Not long after I sat, my aunts and uncles nearby passed me bowls of food. A generous spoonful of homemade and creamy olivie snuck on my plate first. I emitted a happy sigh. Nobody made potato salad like my mom. She used fresh vegetables and then added bits of chicken. Next up was her famous pot roast. The meat was so tender, the pieces fell apart as they landed on my plate.
Everyone, except Auntie Yelena, chatted and made jokes with me. Even Dad tried to crack a smile once in a while. Just a few years ago my interactions with family had been very different. They’d avoided me back then as if I didn’t exist, due to my obsessive-compulsive disorder. Even now, of course, all it would take was just one person to stomp on the precarious relationship I’ve built with them.
“How long do you plan to continue this charade?” Auntie Yelena asked.
A slice of beef almost got caught in my throat.
The question was directed to me, and I wanted to ignore it. But my grandma had taught me to mind my manners, even with people who apparently had forgotten theirs.
Yelena took a sip from her glass of merlot. “You do realize the trials are coming, don’t you?” Her snippy questions wrapped around my throat like a boa constrictor. “I bet you think you can just slide back into the pack like you did with this family.”
My auntie Yelena was referring to the trials the South Toms River Pack holds every year. It was a chance for me to not only rejoin my pack but to prove to everyone that I was no longer a weak and vulnerable member of the Stravinsky family.
I guess that even after I had survived the Long Island pack invasion not so long ago, I still hadn’t proved myself. I gave everything I had that night. Too bad Yelena still didn’t see that I had tried my best.
I sighed and tried not to squirm. The whole time thinking, The strong within the pack shall prevail, and the weak shall fall. Wasn’t that what the Code—the code of ethics for all werewolves—had taught Auntie Yelena? Being a part of a family that followed the Code for centuries should have given me a measure of pride. I had a history, a heritage. But for me the Code was nothing but a persistent reminder of my shortcomings.
Finally, I found my voice. “Forgetting about getting kicked out of the pack is rather difficult. Especially since I haven’t been included in anything for the past five years.” Like her daughter’s last-minute wedding this past summer to an overweight stripper. I bet she thought we didn’t know about her son-in-law’s cheesy website and his free in-home demonstrations.
From a few seats down, my brother, Alex, spoke up. “Hey Nat, unlike some other folks at the table, my wife is looking forward to seeing you at her baby shower.”
I glanced at Yelena, who stared back at me. “I wouldn’t exactly call that pack business,” she said. “But I guess someone has to take pity on you.”
She had some nerve. I should just hand her my butter knife so she could get it over with and stab my damn heart out.
Aggie threw her fork down. “I’m a guest here, but I’m also Nat’s good friend. Could you just knock it off?”
Other than my grandma and my father, Auntie Yelena was considered an elder and should be a respected—or should I say tolerated—member of the family. No one told her to knock off anything.
Yelena shot to her feet. “Who do you think you are—”
My mom had picked the perfect time to bring in one of Aggie’s cakes. “Oh, shut up, all of you,” she snapped in Russian.
She slammed the cake on the edge of the table. The poor chocolate masterpiece never had a chance—it plopped on the floor like a gob of mud.
I took in everyone’s faces. Aggie’s expression was horrified. She screeched, “Man down!” Meanwhile, a few seats from me, my grandma broke out in a fit of giggles. The laughter spread like wildfire, until everyone was laughing.
Except my mom and dad. Mom turned away and began to cry.
Dad sat there silently, then reached out to comfort his sobbing wife. He turned to us. “She had a hard time at work today. I’ll take care of her.”
Excerpted from Kept by Shawntelle Madison. Copyright © 2012 by Shawntelle Madison. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.