• Laurel

Chapter 1 of Pack Dreams

Please note: This is a rough, unedited draft. It will likely change before the final book is released.

Chapter 1, Pack Dreams

The crunch of gravel was barely audible from my buttery leather seat. I huddled in the back of the SUV as it wound through the dark, encroaching forest.

Honestly, even the engine of the SUV was barely audible from the back seat. I didn’t know much about the brand, but I assumed anything called a ‘Sport Utility Vehicle’ was meant to have a monstrous engine for… doing sporty things. Maybe it was an electric vehicle? Or just well-insulated? I didn’t grow up with expectations of driving fancy cars, so I’d never bothered to recognize brand names.

But money… I knew how to recognize money. And this sleek, humming beast of car cost a lot of it, of that I was sure.

I twirled a lock of wild dark hair around my finger and chomped the gum in my mouth to ease my nerves, reflecting on how I found myself in a fancy car in the armpit of the United States: Smoky Falls, Tennessee.

When I ran away from my foster home in LA a couple years back, my only plan was to get as far away as I could from that terrible place. I knew anything would be better than what I left behind.

And in some ways, it was. When you’re a kid on the street, your peers don’t mock you for ragged, dirty clothes like kids in public school tease foster kids. You can eat as much junk food as you like—well, as much as you can steal—and no one raises an eyebrow.

But there was a darker side to street life as a teenage girl; I found that out pretty quickly, too.

I joined up with a group of teens, all around my age, who looked out for each other. Derrick was a few years older, and he kind of organized us. Derrick took in any street kid, he turned no one away. But everyone had to contribute, so he taught us street skills.

It was super easy to swipe a wallet, slip a few bills out, and drop it. Then I’d immediately ‘find’ it and generously return it to the owner, who was more than likely to give me a few more bills for being so ‘honest’. I put effort into appearing clean and wholesome when I went out hunting—I even carried a school bag with heart and rainbow patches on it—just a sweet little schoolgirl on her way home.

Since that day, almost a year ago, I’d often wondered if that was why my attacker picked me.

I remembered the pain, flashes of panic as I lay bleeding in the middle of the street.

The next thing I remembered was waking up in a bright, quiet room, propped up on a deliciously comfortable bed—although my body felt painfully stiff. I opened my eyes to discover it was a hospital room, although nothing like I’d ever experienced before. When I had the flu as a child my parents had taken me to the hospital; I recalled a tiny, cramped space with patterned cotton curtains separating me from another person in a shared room, and an overwhelming stench of bleach and death.

This room was easily big enough for four, but I had it all to myself. A large TV was mounted on the wall at a comfortable angle to watch from the bed, and several plush chairs were positioned in a cozy grouping. From the dark doorway, I could tell I had a private bathroom, with large bright windows to my left and a nurse’s station-slash-kitchenette to my right. In addition, there were several large, colorful vases of flowers taking up every available surface, some relatively fresh and some that appeared rather wilted. The air was sweet with the scent of them.

How long have I been here?

My heart began to speed up, the monitor near my head ticking more rapidly. I lifted my arms to discover they were both wrapped wrist to elbow in gauze, and an IV was taped to my left hand. Dumbly, my eyes followed the tube to the stand that held several bags of fluids, steadily dripping into the connecting port.

My chest felt tight. I tried to pull in a deep breath and winced in pain—the memory of the stabbing fire in my chest came back to me, and I patted my body lightly through the pale patterned hospital gown… I had wrappings around my chest too.

“So glad to see you awake, Lilliana,” a sweet, authoritative voice with a southern drawl drew my gaze as a hot pink-clad nurse bustled into the room. “I’m Roxanne. I know you’ve had a bit of a shock, but I promise you, everything is okay. I just need you to try to calm down for me, okay? Take a few slow breaths.” She gripped my pale hand with warm, dark fingers, and rubbed gently while her eyes focused on the screen above my head.

I suddenly became aware of the eratic beeping that was signaling my heart rate, and I tried to draw another breath that wasn’t quite as deep this time. Okay, that didn’t hurt as much. I pulled in another breath, instinctively wanting to do as she asked. The high-pitched beeping slowed slightly, and the nurse beamed at me.

“That’s right, Lilliana, good girl, you’re doing great. Just a few more easy breaths, you’ve got it.”

“My name’s Lex… or Layla,” my voice came out in a whispery croak. I cleared my throat, trying again. “Layla.” That was a little better, but my throat was a dessicated desert. “Can I get some water?” I eyed the empty pitcher on the stainless steel tray beside me.

“Of course, Lil… Layla. Just keep working on that breathing and I’ll get you some water. Deal?”

I nodded, and she patted my hand before grabbing the pitcher and heading out.

A few breaths later she was back with a full pitcher and a cup, complete with a bendy straw. “Here you go, I’m sure your throat is pretty dry.” She held the cup for me while I sipped, but pulled it away before I was done. “Not too much, we need to take it easy, okay?”

I nodded again, still feeling like this was all surreal. “Thank you… what was your name again?”

“Roxanne,” she smiled brightly. “How are you feeling?”

I considered for a moment. “Sore. Itchy. Confused. What happened? How long have I been here? Where is here, anyway?”

“Well…” Roxanne’s dark eyes darted to the doorway, then back to me. “I can tell you that you’re at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in LA. You’ve been here for eight days. Do you remember anything about the night you came here?”

My brain struggled to pull up memories through the fuzzy cotton that existed in my head. “I got off the bus… I was going home… I remember pain, being on the ground?”

Roxanne nodded soberly. “Yes, you were attacked, and that’s how you ended up in the hospital. I think we should wait for the doctor to get here before we go over anything else.”

“Wait, why am I here though? Who is paying for all of this?” I waived my arm at the spacious room and florist’s shop worth of arrangements.

Roxanne just patted my hand again. “Let’s just wait until the doctor gets here, okay? It should just be a few minutes, we alerted her as soon as we saw you were up.”

I didn’t like her vague answers, but I instinctively trusted her. Good person, my subconscious whispered. I’d always had instincts about people, they hadn’t led me astray yet.

Roxanne smiled, her eyes crinkling at the edges as she conveyed genuine warmth and happiness that I was awake. It was a strange, responding flicker of warmth in my chest, reacting to the unexpected care of this stranger.

The last woman who’d smiled at me like that had been my mom, and it’d been years….

Not the time. I sniffed hard, forcing the memory from my mind and focusing instead on my injuries—none of which I could see, so I searched my body for how injured I felt.

My legs felt normal, although stiff from having been in bed for so long. My arms were achingly sore and itchy, like the skin was healing from cuts under the wrappings.

I attempted another deeper breath, and was rewarded with the constriction of the bandages around my body and a dull stabbing feeling deep within my chest.

“Take it easy, girl. If it hurts to breathe deeply, just keep it as light as is comfortable. You’re still healing.” Roxanne’s voice was soothing and authoritative. While merely the kindly suggestions of a nurse, I felt compelled to do as she instructed. It was in my own best interest, of course. Why wouldn’t I listen?

At that moment a woman with a blonde ponytail and a long white coat over baby-blue scrubs strolled in through the doorway.

“Ah, so you weren’t just playing a prank on me!” She smirked in Roxanne’s direction, who grinned back. “Hi Liliana, I’m Dr. Rosen. How are you feeling?” She grabbed a metal clipboard from the plastic pocket at the foot of my bed and flipped through a few pages.

I released Roxanne’s hand and gently scooted myself back a bit in the bed so I was sitting slightly more erect. “Call me Layla, please. I feel okay, obviously injured but nothing super painful at the moment. I want to know what happened, how I ended up in this fancy room, and… well everything else that has happened in the last eight days? Do you know who attacked me? Were they caught?”

Dr. Rosen exchanged a glance with Roxanne, who gave a short shake of her head in response to the doctor’s unanswered question.

“Okay, well let’s start at the beginning then.” Dr. Rosen pulled one of the comfy chairs over and sat next to Roxanne. “You were attacked in North Hollywood. Your friends scared away the attacker, and called 9-1-1. You were brought to a local ER where they performed immediate lifesaving measures.

Your story was broadcast over the national news, partially because they were hoping some family would come forward, and partially the nature of the attack was… unusual. They shared a photo of you that had been among your belongings in the camp, from your library card I believe.

Your uncle saw the news broadcast. He was convinced you were his long-lost niece, whom he hadn’t seen since she was very little. It turned out his sister and her husband had disappeared from Smoky Falls, Tennessee, one night, and they were never heard from again. He said you were the spitting image of his sister at your age.

He immediately flew here to verify his belief, and prove that he was your next of kin. We obtained your foster records, and although there was no next of kin listed your parents did seem to be the people he claimed they were. They’d apparently obtained new identities for all of you, and you’d lived under assumed names until they died four years ago.

Your uncle immediately claimed guardianship and had you moved here. Roxanne and I work for your uncle, not the hospital. And so we’ve been caring for you as you healed, and your uncle has returned to Smoky Falls to tend to his business there.”

My head swam with all of these revelations. I sucked in a deep breath and gasped at the painful reminder.

“Yes, you’ll have to keep taking it easy for awhile yet as that heals, I’m afraid.” Her brilliant golden eyes were understanding.

“You said the attack was unusual. How so?” I was almost afraid to hear; visions of a hundred terrible things flipped through my mind, and I wondered if maybe it wasn’t better for me to not know, if I didn’t remember anyway.

Dr. Rosen’s eyes tracked to Roxanne, who nodded sharply. “You were stabbed in the chest with an engraved silver spike of some kind. It looked like an antique, and the person who attacked you was speaking an unknown language when your friends arrived—they thought he was doing a magic spell on you before they scared him away. And your arms—well you put up quite a fight. It looked as if you’d fought off a wild animal, the way your attacker cut you up.”

“So… there was nothing else then, just my arms and chest?” Cool relief washed through me to know there wasn’t something more horrific that I’d blocked from memory.

“That’s right,” Dr. Rosen smiled. “But I’d say that’s quite enough, wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, I suppose so,” I agreed. “So… what happens now? When does this uncle come back?”

Roxanne and the doctor exchanged another glance. Roxanne answered my question.“He won’t, Layla. His business requires him to be home unless there’s an absolute emergency. Finding you definitely qualified, but now he’s got us here to help you. Once you’re healed and ready, we’ll be taking you to Smoky Falls to live with him. You’re going to love it, I promise!”

“So once I leave the hospital I’ll go to Tennessee?” Images of endless cornfields flashed through my head—is that what Tennessee loooked like? I didn’t know anything about the place.

“Not exactly. Since you’ve been on the street for a few years, we need to get you caught up on your schooling. Your uncle wants you to be all set before he moves you in—it’s a small town and it would be best if you arrive on the same level with everyone else.” Something about this answer was laced with dishonesty—even though it was mostly the truth, she wasn’t telling me the entire story, I knew it. I sensed the nerves in her answer.

“So I’m going back to the foster home?” I couldn’t keep the disgust from my voice. I knew it reflected in my expression, but I had no energy to pretend otherwise.

“Absolutely not, you’re never going back into the system. We’ve secured an apartment nearby and that’s where you’ll go, to live with us while you recover. You’ll be coming back to the hospital for rehab for a bit, so it’s convenient to be close. Meanwhile we’ll work on getting your GED completed so we can get you enrolled in Smoky Falls University. You will start there next fall.”

My emotions swung wildly. On one hand I was thrilled to know I never had to go back to foster care, or live on the street again—even as much as I’d adapted to it, street life lacked a lot of comforts.

I was also excited at the idea of living with these women, being cared for, actually looked after for the first time in a long time… even getting my GED sounded good. I’d hated leaving school, but leaving foster care meant leaving the entire system, school and all.

On the other hand, I was more than a little overwhelmed to wake up and discover my life for the next year—the next five years, really—was already planned out for me. Clearly this uncle was wealthy—why did I have to go to Smoky Falls University? Couldn’t I choose which school I wanted to attend?

Even as I was miffed, I knew it was crazy for me to be so quick to upset about which college I was attending—last week I wasn’t even planning on finishing high school.

Dr. Rosen and Roxanne waited patiently as my mind swam through all of these thoughts and emotions. “I know it’s a lot,” Roxanne said gently. “And you’ve been through a lot. But I promise you, it’s all good from here. Starting with dinner. I bet you’re hungry, and I’ve been stashing the chocolate puddings to make sure you’ve got some for dessert.” Her wide grin was infectious, and I returned the smile. “I’ll go grab you a tray.”

As it turned out, my year living with Roxanne was one of the best of my life. Roxanne wasn’t just a nurse; she was some kind of a jack of all trades—she knew everything. There was literally nothing that stumped her, and over that year I did my best to come up with something without success.

But true to her word, she got me ready for Smoky Falls. I had physical therapy for my arms—the damage had been deep, and they’d had to stitch together the muscles and tendons before sealing up my flesh. It took months for me to regain full use of them. There were still faint silvery scars where the cuts had been, but they faded until they were barely noticeable on my pale skin. On a sunny day I almost found them pretty—they seemed to shine.

Once I was rehabbed, Dr. Rosen—whose first name was Mary—returned to Smoky Falls, and it was just me and Roxanne. She was more of a big sister than a mother figure, and I grew to absolutely adore her. I tested her a few times with my wiley street kid ways, but she always managed to make me want to comply. There was no ignoring a polite request from Roxanne—you just did what she said.

And after I stopped trying to rebel, I wanted desperately to please Roxanne. She was kind, and smart, and genuinely cared about me. She brought me surprises, especially when I did well at my studies. I worked super hard to catch up on the years of schooling I’d missed, my brain soaking up the knowledge like a dry sponge dropped in the ocean. Roxanne rewarded me with junk food, trips to amusement parks that I’d never visited, and books I drooled over. She tried to give me clothes and accessories—pretty things most girls liked—and I did appreciate them.

But I never treasured them the way I treasured the books, and she could see that. We had a shared google doc where I added new books I wanted, and she’d pull rewards from the list as I checked off sections of my endless schoolwork. I’d get new books interspersed with a new top or trip to the mall. I didn’t have much of a personal style, but I always liked what Roxanne picked out anyway.

So that was how I’d found myself in the back of this SUV slowly crawling along a winding gravel road deep in the Smoky Mountains. As it turned out, Tennessee wasn’t full of cornfields at all. It was mostly forest, deciduous rainforst in fact. Something within me was ecstatic about the idea of exploring the woods—growing up in LA all I’d known was dry desert air, smog, and the occasional ocean breeze when we visited the beach. I imagined the damp, earthy scent under the canopy of green; light filtering through wet leaves, dripping rain hitting the rotting vegetation below.

As we’d passed a painted wooden sign that read ‘Welcome to Smoky Falls’ an electric thrill ran through my body—this was it! The new life I’d been working toward for over a year. The fresh start Roxanne promised was waiting for me. My things from the apartment had been packed up and shipped before we left, and Roxanne had flown ahead to make sure my room was ready for me when I arrived.

Technically today was my eighteenth birthday. I checked my Apple watch—another gift from Roxanne—and it was just after midnight. Legally I was an adult and could go whereever I wanted to go. But I had nowhere to go, and an uncle that was willing to foot the bill for school—why not take advantage?

I peered through the windshield when I noticed light up ahead; two lamp posts guarded the entrance, complete with an ornate wrought-iron gate and a guard house. The uniformed guard stepped out and verified the driver’s ID before hitting a switch that opened the gate, and our SUV rumbled quietly ahead.

Another electric wave ran through my body, setting the hairs on my arms standing at attention as we passed through the threshold. This was a heck of a lot of security—my uncle had to be seriously loaded. I knew from what Roxanne said he was rich, but she would never get into details. I wondered if he owned a fleet of fancy sports cars? A jet? A helicopter? A villa in the south of France?

We turned another corner and there was once again light ahead. I could make out a massive stone house with warm glowing lamps decorating the castle-like exterior. As we drew closer, I could see a small grouping of people standing outside, waiting on our arrival.

My heart rate rose to double time. I wished once again that Roxanne had flown with me instead of a half-day earlier. It would have been nice to arrive with her in the car; even though I knew she was waiting for me there on the steps it felt like I was suddenly facing the unknown completely alone.

And just like that, the SUV was crawling to a stop directly in front of the grand entrance. My heart absolutely pounded in my chest as I watched Roxanne step forward to open the door.

“Welcome to Smoky Falls, Layla.”

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