When Peter wakes up in the hospital, he has only foggy memories of how he got there. His mind had separated out the events of the previous twelve hours into little flashcards. The sound of the flames as they consumed the house. Beating his fists frantically against the mountain ash wall as he tried to get in. The red and blue flickers of the lights of the emergency services vehicles. The way Sophie screamed as she plummeted from the window into Peter’s arms.
He hadn’t been able to save the others.
When he had gotten up for the day around noon, as was his wont, Olivia hadn’t been feeling well. She had been nauseous off and on for the past few days. Benjamin had his fifteen month well-check, and she had asked Peter if he could bring him. Peter had agreed; his work schedule was fluid and taking a few hours off wasn’t a problem. It was a quick visit. Neither of their children had inherited Peter’s lycanthropy, but Benjamin was still a healthy baby. He wailed through his immunizations and got a sticker to soothe his pain.
As they left the doctor’s office, he had a text from Talia, asking if he could pick Derek up from basketball practice on his way home. He normally walked home, but he had a big project due the next day and had asked if someone could take him to buy some supplies. ‘At the last minute as usual,’ read Talia’s half-amused, half-annoyed text.
Even buying posterboard and glue was a process when one had a baby with them, and Derek rolled his eyes a lot while Peter did his best to keep Benjamin corralled. Then he had to stop for gas and wanted to stop at a pharmacy so he could buy a pregnancy test for Olivia – normally he would have scented the change in her by the time morning sickness set in, but anything was possible.
All of this put together, and it was dinner time by the time he turned his car down the road that led to the Hale family house.
Everything after that is fuzzy.
“Mr. Hale?” a nurse asks, as he’s struggling out of the bed, pulling at the IV – why does he have an IV? “Whoa, don’t tug at that – ”
“Where are my children?” he chokes out, nearly falling.
“Your kids are fine, Mr. Hale,” the woman says, her voice firm and soothing. “They’re down the hall with a social worker. You passed out in the ambulance.”
“I did?” He doesn’t remember that, and it doesn’t sound like him. “They gave me something, didn’t they.”
“You were in shock, Peter – can I call you Peter?” she asks, and he just stares at her. “I’m Melissa. Yes, I think they did give you a sedative, because you wouldn’t stop trying to get into the house. You were fighting with the emergency response personnel.”
Peter thinks back. He remembers hearing something about the house being fully involved, too unsafe to enter – but it’s black after that. “I don’t remember.”
“That’s fine, Peter,” Melissa says. “Let’s get you in to see your kids, okay?”
Peter nods. He watches Melissa as she disconnects the IV. He looks at his hands and arms, remembers beating against that mountain ash barrier until his fists were bloody. They’re fine now, of course, completely healed. “Were there.” He chokes on the words. “Were there any survivors?”
Melissa looks over at him as she helps him to his feet. “Only one,” she says quietly. “Your niece, Laura, was brought into the ER still alive. She was badly burned, though. I don’t know what her prognosis is. I’m so sorry, Peter.”
A wave of nausea overcomes him, thinking of Olivia, of Talia. The next thing he knows, he’s on his knees, retching into a basin Melissa is holding. It takes several long moments for it to stop. “Sorry,” he says hoarsely, wiping the back of his hand over his mouth.
“There’s nothing to apologize for.” Melissa holds a cup of water to his mouth and helps him take a few sips. Then she helps him to his feet again, and down the hall.
The social worker’s office is much more personable than the rest of the hospital, with framed pictures and sage green curtains and a lamp instead of just the ceiling fluorescents. Derek is curled up in one corner with his knees tucked up to his chest. Benjamin is asleep on the sofa, but Sophie is awake, and her shout of, “Daddy!” wakes the baby. Peter sinks onto the floor and cradles both his children to his chest. A few tears escape him, but he chokes the rest of them back. They’ll only get more upset if they see him crying.
Sophie pulls away first and says, “Miss Everett says that Mommy died, that we can’t ever see her again, and Auntie Talia and Uncle Aaron and, and everybody! That can’t be right! Tell her she’s wrong!”
Peter has to breathe slowly, in through his nose and out through his mouth, focusing on not throwing up. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. She’s not wrong.” Breathe in, breathe out. “I know it’s not fair, but it’s true. From now on, it’s just the four of us.” He holds a hand out to Derek, but the teenager only curls up tighter and won’t look at him. “The others are gone.”
The social worker lets them have a moment, then starts talking gently about death and how it’s okay to be sad or angry. She tells Peter about how it’s okay for him to show his grief, that it might scare the children in the moment, but it’s important for them to see that adults can cry, too. “Just let them know that even though you’re sad, you still love them,” she says.
Things start to blur again. Peter finds himself nodding along to what she’s saying without really listening. She gives him some pamphlets on how to deal with grief and how children react to the death of loved ones, the meeting schedule of a support group for single parents, and her business card with her private number. “Call me any time,” she says, and he nods again. “Do you have a place to stay?”
He hadn’t even thought about that yet, and in response, he only manages to shake his head. He had lived in that house his entire life, except when he had been staying at a dorm in college. It had never occurred to him that he might live anywhere else.
“Okay, then let me make a quick call,” she says, and gets on the phone for a minute. When she gets off the phone, she says, “We have some housing here so the parents of sick children can stay the night in an actual bed, without having to leave the hospital grounds. Normally it’s restricted for that purpose, but I’ve arranged for you to stay there tonight.”
“Thank you,” Peter says.
Sophie tugs on his sleeve. “What about dinner? I’m hungry.”
How can she possibly be hungry, Peter wonders. But then again, he has no idea how much she really understands. She’s only five years old. She watches cartoons where coyotes fall off cliffs and then get right back up.
“I’ll take you by the cafeteria on the way,” the social worker says, and Peter nods again. They get a sandwich for Sophie and some cereal and baby food for Benjamin. The social worker also gets a sandwich for both Derek and Peter. Derek refuses to even try to eat it. Peter makes an effort, but he can barely choke down the second bite. He has to fight off another wave of nausea.
They’ve been sitting there for about fifteen minutes when Melissa comes in and sits down at their table. “I just wanted to give you an update on Laura,” she says, and Derek’s head jerks up. “Her condition has stabilized. They’re going to move her to the burn unit in the morning. She’s going to have a long road ahead of her, but they think she’s going to make it.”
“Thank you,” Peter says in a dry whisper. “Can we see her?”
“Not tonight. She’s heavily sedated. Come by in the morning and we’ll take you in to see her once she’s been settled in.”
Peter nods. “Okay. Thank you.”
Several decades later, or at least that’s how it feels, they’re showed into the small room that they can stay the night in. It reminds Peter of a hotel room, warm but impersonal. There are two beds and a little bathroom, and, surprisingly, a crib. The social worker mentions that since a lot of people come in from out of town, the rooms are prepared to house siblings as well. She tells Peter again to call her if he needs anything, and then departs.
Peter puts Benjamin down in the crib, and he falls asleep immediately. Olivia had always said that Benjamin was a blessing with how quickly he went to sleep. At least he’s sleeping through the night now. He had been late to do that, almost a year old.
“You two take the beds,” he says to Derek and Sophie. “I probably won’t sleep much anyway.”
He half-expects Derek to argue, but the teenager just sheds his jeans and gets underneath the blankets, curling into fetal position. Sophie climbs into the other bed but then looks at Peter and says, “But I can’t sleep without Mr. Pumpkin.”
Peter swallows the lump in his throat. Mr. Pumpkin was Sophie’s stuffed bear, that she’d had ever since she was an infant. Mr. Pumpkin was now nothing but ash. “Just try, okay, sweetheart?”
Sophie snuffles a little but allows Peter to tuck her in. He turns out the lights except for the small desk lamp and sits down there. For a long minute, he doesn’t move or think. Just allows the weariness to settle into his bones, the knowledge that the two people he most relied on are now gone. He’s alone except for the children. They’re his responsibility now. He’s never been good at responsibility. Oh, he’d gotten better at it, after Sophie had been born. But it had never been his forte.
For the first time, he lets the red seep into his eyes, studies his own reflection in the darkened mirror. It shouldn’t be him. It should be Laura, or Derek. He doesn’t know why the alpha power chose him. Familial power can work in strange ways sometimes, skipping over an oldest child or even an entire generation.
What matters is that he’s now an alpha, with a pack to protect. That means he can’t allow himself to lose focus through grief.
There’s a pad of paper and a pen on the table, and he picks it up and starts thinking about things he’s going to have to do in the morning. First of all, check in with Laura. He can take some of her pain, allow her to rest easier and heal faster. That will take precedence.
Then there are going to be more complicated things to do. Find a place to live, and things to put in it. Funeral arrangements. Making sure extended family was notified. Thank God that Olivia’s mother had died the previous year, because Peter doesn’t think he could handle having to tell her. But Aaron and Sean both had living parents and siblings. He supposes he should call Talia’s office, Aaron’s store – the other employees will have no doubt seen this on the news, but formalities should be observed.
He’ll have to call the life insurance company, and homeowner’s insurance as well. Talia’s law firm would have all the necessary paperwork to process the varying wills. He doesn’t know where his car is. He supposes it’s probably still at the house, and the idea of going back makes his stomach churn, but he’ll need to go get it. He’ll have to call the schools – high school for Derek, the elementary school for Cora and Jocelyn. His two little nieces that he’ll never see again.
Grief chokes him for a few moments, and he forces it back down.
The idea of lying down and trying to sleep with nothing but his thoughts is terrifying. Instead, he picks up the pamphlets that the social worker had given him and starts reading about how to help children process grief and what to expect after a loved one dies. Of course, the pamphlets don’t talk about what to do when the child’s entire world has been upended. There’s a list of resources in the back, including the numbers of some local child therapists. He makes a mental note that he might need to get in touch with them, especially for Derek. He seems to be taking it worse than the others – but of course, that makes sense. For one thing, he’s older; he understands what death really means. But more than that, the children had lost their mother and their extended family, but Derek had lost both his parents, and his two younger sisters as well, to say nothing of Laura’s condition. It makes sense that he would have more trouble dealing with it.
He reads the pamphlets over and over again, and eventually, dozes off.
The phone’s alarm is like an ice pick directly to his ear, when it goes off at seven thirty. He hadn’t really expected to need it, since Sophie usually woke up early, but then again it was a late night. He rouses the kids out of bed and promises that they’re going to get breakfast and then go see Laura. He thinks about taking a shower, but what’s the point? He doesn’t have clean clothes to change into. That’s something he can worry about later.
They head back to the cafeteria and get breakfast. He’s worried that Derek will refuse to eat again, but apparently grief is no match for the metabolism of a teenaged boy. He eats silently and methodically, like he’s barely tasting it, but he does eat.
A little while later, they go up to the front desk and Peter gets directions to where Laura is. A nurse meets him outside and tells him that he might not want to bring the children in. “I don’t have anyone to leave them with,” he says.
“I’ll stay with them for a few minutes,” a voice interjects, and Peter looks up to see Deputy Tom Stilinski heading towards him. They’ve met a few times before, usually while Peter was doing work for Talia’s law firm. Tom nods and says, “Peter.”
Peter nods back. “Thanks for . . . whatever you’re here for.”
“We can talk in a few minutes. Go see to your niece.” Tom sits down and takes the baby from Peter, cradling Benjamin against his chest.
“Do you know patty cake?” Sophie asks the deputy, and seeing that things are in good hands, Peter heads into Laura’s room.
She looks awful. The burns have ravaged one side of her face, and what of her arms is visible are heavily covered in burns as well. Derek chokes out a sob and pulls away from Peter when Peter tries to embrace him. Peter sits down next to Laura, taking her hand between both of his own. As an alpha, he can handle a lot of pain. He pulls as much of it into himself as he dares, listening to Derek’s hoarse sobs.
The doctor comes in and talks to him about the fact that Laura is still sedated and could have brain damage from the smoke inhalation, and that it might be some time before they can fully assess her condition. She’s going to need a lot of care for the burns, and Peter should be prepared for the fact that she’ll be in the hospital long-term. Peter nods in agreement.
“Can I stay here with her?” Derek asks, his voice barely a whisper.
“I have things I need to do – get us a place to sleep and everything,” Peter says. “You’d be by yourself.”
Derek nods. “Okay. That – that’s okay.”
“All right, then.” Peter squeezes his shoulder. “Call me if you need anything. I’ll be back in a few hours, probably.”
Derek just nods again, so Peter heads back into the hallway. Tom is braiding Sophie’s hair for her, and he looks up as Peter comes out. “So, I have a couple things for you,” Tom says, and holds out a set of keys. “I drove your car from the house to the hospital. Figured you wouldn’t want to go back there, at least not today.”
Peter lets out a breath. “Thank you,” he says. The words don’t come easily to him. He’s never been big on accepting help from people he doesn’t know well.
“There are some things I put in the trunk. Did Betty tell you about the single parents support group?”
“She mentioned it.”
“Well, I’m in it, along with Melissa, the nurse who was taking care of you last night?” Tom says, and Peter nods. “Some of the moms got together some things for you, baby clothes, toys, that sort of thing. I loaded it all into the car for you. Do you have a place to stay?”
“I will by tonight.”
“Okay.” Tom hesitates, a little uncomfortable. “Fire chief said it looked like it was probably an electrical short. We’ll know more once the official investigation is done. I’ll keep you posted, of course.”
“Of course,” Peter echoes. With those words, it becomes clear that the official investigation is going to be worthless. Peter knows it was murder from the mountain ash circle around the house. Whoever was behind it clearly has someone official on the payroll. That’s good, in a way – it gives him a place to start his investigation. Once he has the report, he’ll know where to go from there.
Tom shakes his hand and heads down the hall. Peter needs a way to keep his children entertained while he makes a hundred phone calls, but he doesn’t want to go somewhere public, like the park. He doesn’t think he could take prying questions or even sympathetic remarks right now. He heads out on one of the back roads instead, so Sophie can run around and blow off some steam in the woods.
He calls Aaron’s mother and Sean’s brother, because those are the two numbers he has in his phone. Aaron’s mother had already heard on the news, but Sean’s brother hasn’t. He takes the news stoically and says he’ll call their parents and they’ll be in Beacon Hills the next day.
Then he calls Talia’s law firm, the sporting goods store that Aaron manages, the yoga studio where Kayla works, the mechanic that Sean works for. All of them had already seen the news. Talia’s assistant, crying audibly, offers to call the insurance company for Peter, and he accepts with thanks.
His own business is ‘legal consulting’, which is a fancy way to say that he’s a fixer. He has no boss and no staff, but he does have a number of business contacts. One of them is a realtor – he’s handled some troublesome evictions of problem tenants. It’s mid-morning now, so he calls her. “Tanya? It’s Peter Hale.”
“Mr. Hale, my God, I am so sorry,” Tanya says. “I saw what happened on the news. Are you all right?”
“Physically, I’m fine. But I need a favor. I’m hoping not to stay in a hotel for the foreseeable future.”
“Sure, of course. What are you looking for?”
“At least four bedrooms, at least two and a half bathrooms,” Peter says. “Preferably a large lot so the kids have room to run around the backyard. Ready to move into immediately, obviously. Other than that, I’m not really picky.”
Peter starts to tell her that there’s really no limit, but then thinks better of the idea. He has more money than he’ll need in a lifetime, but most of it is tied up in various stocks and funds. He needs to think about what of his money is actually accessible, and then he’ll need to go to the bank. “Nothing over one point two.”
“Okay. Let me check the listings and I’ll get back to you.”
“Thanks.” Peter hangs up and watches Sophie try to climb a tree. “Get down here, you know the rules!” he shouts. Sophie was constantly seeing her werewolf cousins doing acrobatics and trying to imitate them. She drops down from the branch and sticks her tongue out. He sticks his tongue out back, and she giggles.
The bank is the next stop. The lack of sleep is starting to make him feel a bit achy, foggy. He hates how sympathetic and patient the woman at the bank is, even though he knows he should be grateful. She helps him transfer some funds around so he’ll be able to just write a check for the new house without having to worry about a mortgage. He’ll have to stop by the vault later this week.
That makes him think of the school, and he realizes he’s forgotten to call them. He doesn’t really care. From the conversations he’s had so far, everyone in town knows what happened. The school won’t be expecting to see any of the Hale children, even if they know who had and hadn’t survived. He’ll deal with that later. There are going to be custody issues with Derek, too. Laura is twenty, so there’s no need to worry about her, but he’s sure there will be paperwork to figure out for Derek. He vaguely remembers the social worker mentioning that.
As he gets Benjamin buckled into his car seat, Sophie suddenly asks, “Why do people die?”
Peter lets out a breath as he climbs into the car. The pamphlet had mentioned that children ask a lot of questions after the death of loved ones, and sometimes will ask the same questions repeatedly. “It’s a little hard to explain,” he says, “but think of like, oh, like that iPad Uncle Aaron got you. You remember when you dropped it and it stopped working?”
“Uh huh,” Sophie says.
“Well, sometimes people stop working, too. Sometimes it’s because they get too old and, and their battery stops working. Or sometimes they get broken, like your iPad did.”
Sophie chews on this for a few moments. “So the fire broke Mommy?”
“Why can’t we fix her?”
Peter swallows hard. “Well, sometimes things break and they can’t be fixed. Most of the time people break, we can fix them. But sometimes we can’t. And when we can’t fix them, they die.”
“Oh.” Sophie’s quiet for another minute. “Can we go to Dairy Queen for lunch?”
Peter chokes on a half-laugh, half-sob. “Sure,” he says. “Why not?”
Even the woman at Dairy Queen recognizes him and knows what happened. She tries to give them their meal for free, and he won’t let her. He gets Sophie a Blizzard and shares it with her, since if she eats the whole thing, she’ll be bouncing off the walls. It sticks in his throat, but he forces it down. When they’re done eating, he calls to check in with Derek, and reminds him to have some lunch. He says one of the nurses brought him something.
Tanya has texted him three different listings. He wishes he had a computer to look at them on, but his phone will do. He thumbs through the photos. The first is mediocre and the second far too small despite the number of bedrooms. The third is good, though. A big backyard, bordering on the forest, hardwood floors, gas range. He texts her back to let her know, and she says she can meet him there with the paperwork at three. She’ll get the gas, water, and electricity set up, too, she says. No extra charges.
Peter wishes people would stop trying to act like money is the issue. He has more money than he knows what to do with – once the insurance and the family money come in, he’ll have more than he could ever spend in a lifetime. But everyone keeps acting like they’re doing him favors by not charging him for things. He pinches the bridge of his nose and reminds himself that they’re trying to be kind, that they know there’s nothing that can take away his pain, so they offer what little they can.
There’s so many things they’re going to need. He’s sure he’s not even thinking of half of them. Furniture, clothing, towels, appliances – the list could go on for days. He goes through the boxes that Deputy Stilinski had brought him. There’s a bag with diapers, wipes, and formula. A box of clothes that should fit both children at least passably, and two pairs of shoes for each of them. Another, smaller box of toys and some books. It’ll keep the children clothed for a week, entertained for three days at maximum, and fed for zero.
“Focus, Peter,” he mutters to himself, as the grief rises in his throat and threatens to choke him again. “Focus.”
He opens up the internet on his phone and searches for a furniture store that also sells mattresses, so he won’t have to make two stops. He heads over with purpose, and is greeted by a young salesman. “Can I help you find something?”
For the first time, Peter wishes the man had recognized him. It just figures that now that he needs someone who does, he gets somebody who doesn’t. “Yes. I need . . .” The thought of what he needs is overwhelming, and he has to stop and breathe for a moment. “Everything.”
“Everything?” the young man says.
“Mr. Hale!” a voice rings out, and a woman hurries over. “Please, let me help you. There must be so much you need. Let’s get you taken care of.”
“Thank you,” Peter chokes out.
“Since you’re here, I take it that you’ve found a place to stay?” she prompts.
Peter nods. “Or, well, I’ll have one in a few hours, once all the paperwork has been put together.”
“I saw on the news that four of the children survived?”
“Well, Laura is really an adult now, but she’ll be in the hospital for several months with her injuries,” Peter says, managing to start breathing again. “Derek is fifteen, Sophie five, and Benjamin is fifteen months.”
“Okay. So you’ll need two adult bedroom sets and one child’s. Dining room set, living room set . . . entertainment center?” she asks, and he nods. “A changing table and a crib for the baby’s room. That should probably do for starters.”
He follows her around the store and makes vague choices based on a house he hasn’t seen and won’t see for hours. Sophie runs around and bounces on the different plush chairs and couches and nobody has a heart to reprimand her. Once he’s selected his purchases, Peter gives them the new address and says any time after three is fine. He might not be there, but he’ll leave the door unlocked. He asks if they offer assembly. The saleswoman starts to say no, then changes her mind and says yes. He thanks her, glad that he got cash at the bank so he can tip well.
What he really needs is a laptop. There’s too much of this stuff that he can’t do just with his phone. He’s got about half an hour before he’s meeting Tanya at the new house. He hates shopping at a place like Best Buy, but he doesn’t have time to go find an independent shop that might have actual customer service. He girds himself against retail incompetence and heads into the store.
“Spongebob!” Sophie sees what’s playing on one of the screens and immediately runs over to watch. Peter keeps an eye on her while he looks over the laptop specs and grabs one that’s at least vaguely passable.
“Time to go, sweetie,” he says to Sophie.
“No,” Sophie says, enthralled by the television.
“We need to go,” he says. “Daddy has a lot to do.”
“No!” Sophie shouts. A few other shoppers look over at him, and he feels his face flush with embarrassment. “I don’t wanna!”
Peter scoops her up and tries to carry her, while her little limbs flail, but he can’t manage to do that, carry the laptop, and push Benjamin’s stroller all at the time. The more he tries to calm Sophie, the more upset she gets, until she’s throwing a full-blown temper tantrum and he’s given up on buying anything and just wants to get out of the store before he dies from humiliation.
“Here, go ahead and take her outside,” a voice says, and someone takes the laptop from his hand. “I’ll get this for you.”
It should be embarrassing – hell, it is embarrassing – but he doesn’t even care. Sophie’s screams are giving way to sobs of ‘I want mommy’, and Peter is ready to sit down on the floor and have a meltdown of his own. He steers the stroller out of the store and out to the car, straps Benjamin into his car seat, and holds Sophie, walking in circles around the car. Gradually, her sobs trail off. Once she’s calm, Peter manages to text Tanya to let her know he’s going to be about ten minutes late.
He’s getting her in her booster seat when he hears someone come up behind him, and he whirls around, nearly overbalancing. The man standing behind him is vaguely familiar, taller than him by several inches, with bright blue eyes and attractive scruff. He’s carrying a Best Buy bag, and holds it out to Peter. “Your laptop.”
“What? Oh,” Peter says, blinking. He hadn’t realized ‘I’ll get this’ meant buying it for him, thinking it had been an employee who was going to return it to the shelf. “Oh, uh, I don’t have my checkbook – ”
“Don’t worry about it,” the man says.
Peter wants to argue. He wants to scream and cry and throw the laptop in the man’s face. He wants to thank him and ask him for a hug. He doesn’t know what the hell he wants. All he manages is a choked, “I have to go,” before he throws the bag into the front seat, climbs into the car, and drives away as quickly as he dares.
~ ~ ~ ~