Chapter 1: Old School Cool
“Thank you for calling Centerburg Bank and Credit account management. This is Leigh, how may I help you?!" I plaster on my customer service voice as the customer's information populates on my dual monitor.
For the millionth time since I started this job, I wonder how I got stuck here in my hometown, when all my other high school friends, even my old crush Donovan, managed to move out and have cool careers.
I notice the multiple fees on the account and put my headset mic on silent. Alyssa, who calls me her 'work bestie' even though we've never hung out outside of work, peeks at my screen.
Alyssa whistles through her pink lipstick.
“I, Mackenzie Leigh Stewart, will bet my donut for your muffin that Mrs…Katelyn Bigsby will drop three obscenity bombs on me," I offer our usual bet of snacks.
“Deal, but I bet she's gonna drop at least five. She's on the account with her husband, see all those charges that say 'OF'? That's OnlyFuns. You're about to be a homewrecker." Alyssa points.
I wince as Mrs. Bigsby begins to holler through the headset, not even letting me confirm her information.
My fingers go up one by one as Mrs. Bigsby drops one obscenity bomb after another.
My attempts at placating her over the next seven minutes work as I explain that we will reach out to OnlyFuns to figure this out. When the call ends, I'm left holding up five fingers.
“You're a psychic," I grumble.
“Mack, if I were psychic, I wouldn't be on my third year at this dead-end hellscape of a job, and I would've transitioned earl—Thank you for calling Centerburg Bank and Credit account management, this is Lisa, how may I help you?" Alyssa sugar coats her voice with customer service sweetness.
She untangles her long blonde hair from her headset as her customer begins to yell.
I roll my thumb and index finger over the ends of my light brown hair. My ends have that crispy, barbie-hair feeling. Maybe after I get paid, I'll text Hannah and see if she can give me a discount on a haircut.
It'll be good timing, since I have to shift right before I get paid, and my hair grows faster after I shift.
“Hey, Paul, did you check your Shiftagram? There's another 'Lycan Rights' protest near city hall, so dude, don't take that exit home. Traffic will suck," D'Angelo, one of my coworkers, mentions to our other coworker, Paul.
Both of them sit behind Alyssa and me. They both drool over watches they can't afford, and both are Wolf Shifters in the local pack. They even have custom stickers on both of their cars that read – 'Phoebe Pack: Delta member'.
“D, maybe I should go and lay on my horn. If those wolfmen want equality so bad, then they should shape up and stop giving us Shifters a bad name," Paul said, pulling his anime girl T-shirt down over his gut.
The term 'wolfmen' is a slur because when Lycans shift, they turn into a hybrid of a human and a wolf, like something out of a horror movie.
My jaw clenches, but I don't dare say anything to defend myself.
I didn't ask to be born, and if I had the option, I wouldn't have chosen to be born a Lycan. I would've chosen just to be a normal human. Even though humans don't have it easy, Alyssa sure doesn't, at least they don't have to worry about shifting at least once a month.
They also don't have to worry about extremist groups like 'LyCan'ts' putting up duck blinds in woods to catch a Lycan shifting and 'outing them' to the world, or worse.
“Hey. I will contact HR if you drop another slur. I don't tolerate people dehumanizing my community, and I won't tolerate it against others either," Alyssa whipped around, snapping at Paul.
“God Alyssa, it's just a joke. Keep your blue, pink, and white striped shirt on, it's not like any crazy Lycans are working here anyway," Paul replied.
My blood turns to stone in my office chair.
I don't know what I'd do if anyone outed me, or if I accidentally outed myself as a Lycan.
It was bad enough when D'Angelo found out I've dated women before. I've also heard others talk sh*t about Alyssa when she came back from medical leave with her 'deadname' officially out of the HR personnel system and looking like a million bucks.
Not many talk smack about Wolf Shifters. Not only are they seen as the 'Mufasa' from 'the Lion King' because they shift into oversized wolves that most consider majestic and honorable– but they also have the support of their packs.
Though Paul and D'Angelo's pack is small, the higher-ranking members will come after anyone who dares cross them, even if they're in the wrong.
I know life's not fair, but it still hurts that shifters are assumed to be great, even if they're hateful like Scar. Lycans are vilified like those hyenas in the movie, even though those hyenas didn't ask to be born as hyenas either.
“If it was a joke, it was bad. You didn't make me laugh, and I laugh at you all the time," Alyssa smirked, her blue eyes twinkling.
“Ha, ha ver—" Paul cuts himself off as our manager, Jeff, struts down the hallway like an overfed rooster.
“Hey, everyone, log out and wrap up your current calls, we need to have an emergency meeting." Jeff puffs out his chest in his green polo shirt.
Yes! Time off the phones!
I'm just about to log out when I catch an incoming call. I nearly, nearly scream. The customer information populates up on my monitor:
Roxanne Evangelina Santos.
“Bad luck. Don't worry, I'll tell you what it's all about. If we are all getting canned at least we don't have to sit next to 'Never Funny in Philadelphia' anymore," Alyssa says, motioning to Paul and D'Angelo's empty chairs.
After I say my customer service greeting, I remain alone in the cube farm.
“Hey Leigh, how was your weekend?" a voice like smoke and velvet flows through the headset that soothes my Lycan ears.
I pause because I'm on autopilot and I forgot I gave her my customer service name. I also can't remember the last time a customer asked me how I was.
“Uh…just fine." I lie. I can't tell her that I stubbed my toe, my car window stopped working, and I burst into tears watching Bridget Jones' Diary. She's a customer after all.
“Thank you for asking, Miss Santos. I just need to verify some information. What is your date of birth, and address?"
“Oh, God, please call me Roxy, and my birthday is August 8th and I'm turning the big twenty-five this year. And my address is 4 Crescent Cove, apartment 3a, Centerburg," Roxy says, and I can hear her smile through my headset.
Her warm, melodic voice almost distracts me from realizing that we have the same address, only she lives on the top floor, and I live on the first.
I know it's a local bank, but I can't believe we live in the same building!
“Ok, Roxy, thank you. We're all set, how may I help you?" I ask, noticing a couple of big charges and a lot of declines.
Please don't yell at me, Roxy, please…
“Yeah, I just moved to that new address, but I think my credit card was sent to my old address. I got an alert that someone tried to buy a bunch of stuff at a gaming store. I can't play video games to save my life, no matter how much my cousin wants me to play that new hit game 'Sparkleaf Station' with him." Roxy laughed.
Maybe it's because I'm exhausted, but when she laughs, I smile. I'm also relieved because she would've been justified in being angry, but she isn't yelling at me!
“I understand, my best friend just started playing that game and is already obsessed. She tried to get me to play it too, but I think I'll stick to trash tv and books," I reply, thinking of how Hannah already has guildmates in her game.
“Books? That's old-school cool, Leigh." Roxy compliments as I type away, fighting a blush.
“Ha, maybe, I don't know. I like to escape just like everyone else… Ok, Roxy, we've credited back the charges, and I sent you a new card. The store may send us back a receipt or something, but I wouldn't sweat it." I find that my mood has lifted.
I thought this call would ruin my day, but Roxy treats me like I matter, and I don't usually feel that way.
“Thanks, Leigh, I knew I was in good hands. I gotta jet, I've hit killer traffic leaving the Lycan Rights parade, and I'm late to instruct my next class," Roxy praises, and I can't remember the last time anyone aside from Hannah praised me.
Butterflies and sparks make my cheeks flush.
“Of course, it's my pleasure, Roxy, enjoy teaching! And thank you for choosing Centerburg Bank and Credit," I say as the rest of my team trickles back from the conference room.
“You don't have to do the customer service spiel with me, Leigh. Enjoy your books and trash tv. Stay old school cool," Roxy says and the call ends.
Stay cool? I've never been cool in my life.
“Hey, Mack, so we got some good news, and some bad news," Alyssa says, plopping down next to me.
“Oh no, they're not cutting our paid leave again, are they?" I pale.
I've been saving up my paid leave to go camping in Yellowstone.
“Nope. Centerburg Bank and Credit has been bought out by some big-deal Shifter Pack from New Brighton City. You should've seen the look on Paul and D'Angelo's faces when they realized that the Phoebe Pack won't be the biggest in Centerburg anymore. They looked like they got hit by a shovel. Ya know, that'd improve both their looks," Alyssa whispers and picks at her muffin.
When I think of the shifters from New Brighton City, the warm butterflies from my conversation with Roxy dissipate into tension.
People from NBC look down on us and think we're slow because we don't have nightclubs open past midnight or a Ferrari dealership. If the Phoebe Pack Shifters are dreading these new Shifters, I can't even imagine how they'd treat me if my secret got out. I remember Donovan saying he was nervous about going to college in NBC, that was because he had an accent!
“Oh no, are they gonna outsource our department to cut costs?!" I ask, fearing the inevitable.
“Nah, they're keeping everyone, fortunately, and unfortunately. But the new alpha CEO and his beta, the COO, are touring our office tomorrow, so we gotta dress up. They do not pay me enough to kiss a*s. When I get home, I'm brushing up my resume, just in case," Alyssa scrunches her nose.
I agree. I have to unearth my pencil skirt and find a dress shirt that doesn't have a stain.
“Yeah, I'm just gonna go home and read…" I say, remembering Roxy's comment. “You know, be old-school cool."
Alyssa eyes me.
“Ya know, you're in way better spirits than I thought you'd be. Did you take out your phone in secret and get a sext from a hottie?" a gossip-seeking, but harmless grin spreads across Alyssa's face.
“Something like that…" I wink back.
I like my secrets, and I'm not about to tell Alyssa all of mine. Especially since I'll probably never speak to Roxy again even if we're neighbors.