The streets are dark and filled with monsters. The diner, not so much.
It’s to be expected. No kid wants real food when there’s candy to be had. The diner will get a spike over the next day and a half as parents try to coax their spawn from their Halloween haul—even deep-fried potato is better than death by chocolate.
But for now, it’s just Eli, one rowdy table of kids he vaguely recognises from school, some empty ketchup bottles, and his chem textbook. Mr. Pembroke is notorious for springing quizzes the day after town events and Eli’s been bitten before.
He’s almost got the continuity equation memorized when a mass of black is dropped across the pages.
“It hurts me to see you like this,” she says like a woman grieving.
Eli rolls his eyes, grabbing the next ketchup bottle. “What? Studying?”
His mother is fast when she wants to be. The ketchup is out of his hands before Eli can blink.
“Working,” she says, squirreling the ketchup bottles away like Eli’s found the liquor cabinet.
Eli sighs. “I work for you, mother.”
“And I’m in half a mind to fire you.”
He grins, retrieving his chem book from under the pile of black. A black tracksuit now he’s looking properly. With bones painted on. Of course.
“No, you aren’t.”
She turns sharp eyes on him, but Eli’s well-practiced at seeing the softness behind them. Her lips quirk up. “No, I’m not.”
Eli leans over the counter. “Then—”
“But,” she continues, making Eli groan as he sinks back onto his stool, “I do wish you’d have some fun once in a while.”
“Chemistry is fun,” Eli says. He ignores the patented Mom Eyebrows that earns him. He’s well-practiced at that too.
His mother sighs, leaning away from the counter. Slow night or no, she’s perfectly put together to receive patrons. Serviceable blouse atop serviceable skirt atop serviceable shoes. The only hint of her love of Halloween is the cat ears on her usually also serviceable headband. Costa’s wearing a matching pair in the kitchen.
“I can’t believe I have to encourage my only son to get into the Halloween spirit,” she says to the ceiling. “Lord, why did you curse me with a responsible child?”
Eli knows this one. “Because you partied enough for two generations?”
The dishcloth to the face is expected but Eli’s laughing so hard he doesn’t dodge in time. Hard enough he misses the ringing door.
His mother doesn’t. You can’t take the hospitality out of the hospitality worker and she’s been in the industry for too long as it is. Waitressing is one of the easiest jobs to pick up in a new town.
By the time Eli’s looked to the door, frowned, then readjusted his eyes about two feet down, his mother’s already moving.
“Hello,” says the girl at the door.
She can’t be older than seven or eight, an age that makes the lack of adults around her a glaringly obvious detail. She’s also dressed as a hotdog which . . . awesome.
“Hello, sweetheart,” Eli’s mother says, rounding the counter, mom-mode engaged. “Where are your parents?”
“At home,” the girl says like someone imparting the weather. “I got lost.”
“Bummer,” Eli says automatically then immediately feels like an idiot.
His mother looks like she’s trying not to laugh as she ushers the little hotdog into the diner proper. Now that she’s closer Eli can see the plastic crown shoved over the tip of the sausage part of the costume.
“What’s your name, honey?” Eli’s mom asks as the girl clambers onto a stool next to Eli.
“Isabelle Blake,” the hotdog says, pulling an iPhone out of a hidden pocket of her costume like she’s an executive CEO. “I tried calling home but no one answered.”
Eli snags the significantly more battered cordless from the back counter and is handing it to his mom before she even looks up.
“Blake . . . as in Owen Blake?” Eli says. His voice is entirely normal when he says it too. Score.
Isabelle nods. “He’s my brother.”
“What’s your dad’s name, honey?” his mom asks, already dialing.
“Roger,” Eli and Isabelle say at the same time.
Eli feels his face heat up as his mother gives him a look before turning her attention to the phone. “Yes, sheriff’s office?”
Isabelle’s looking at Eli like she’s thinking of inviting him to a tea party so Eli deflects the best way he knows how. “You want a sundae?”
Isabelle’s face lights up and Eli slides off his stool as his mom steps out of the way.
“Were you out trick or treating?” Eli asks, pulling down a sundae bowl. An Eli special is in order. God help whoever has to get this kid to sleep later.
“Yep,” Isabelle says, popping the ‘p’. “Mrs. Shultz took me with Billy and Trevor but they went too fast and Ms. Devon hands out actual 100 Grands.”
“Oh man,” Eli says, pulling down the chocolate and caramel sauces. “I’d fall behind for those too.”
“Right?!” Isabelle says in the tone of someone who’s found their people. Eli has to wonder how many 100 Grand-hating heathens she’s come into contact with.
He’s putting the finishing touches on the mound of whipped cream when his mother comes back. She gives him an exasperated look when she sees the monster he’s handing to Isabelle. She’s never appreciated his artistic pursuits.
“So the bad news is the sheriff’s department’s busy,” Eli’s mom says. “And they can’t get through to your parents.”
“There’s a party,” Isabelle says, giving the sundae some super gratifying heart-eyes. “It’s loud.”
“Well, I’ve left a message at the station,” his mom says. “If anyone calls in—”
“I can take her,” Eli blurts out and yeah, his mom definitely knows there’s something up now.
“Can you now?” she says.
“I mean since all the ketchup’s mysteriously disappeared. . .”
There’s no way he’s getting away with this. His mother is smirking like that time he smuggled a kitten home in his hoodie. Nevermind it became Moose who’s probably asleep on his pillow upstairs. Isabelle is half-buried in ice cream and thankfully oblivious to Eli’s chill melting all over the tiles.
“Okay,” Eli’s mom says finally, clapping him on the shoulder like he’s just aced a job interview. “By the time you put your costume on Isabelle should have finished her sundae.”
Oh hell no. “I don’t—”
“Yeah, costume!” Isabelle says. She’s somehow got chocolate sauce smeared up to her temple. It’s goddamn adorable.
“Two to one!” his mother says, bundling the homemade skeleton costume into his arms. “Go get changed.”
“I hate you,” he says as he’s pushed toward the back.
“I know,” his mother says. “You should get back at me by having fun. Make some friends even. Stop being such a lone wolf.”
“I’m not alone. I have you,” Eli says, kissing his mother on the cheek exaggeratedly as he lets her push him toward the stairs.
It’s cold outside—certainly colder than fall ought to be—but the town has taken the temperature as a challenge. All of Rose Lake seems to be out, children streaking past with giant scarves wrapped around their necks like afterthoughts, dulling the effect of the more realistic costumes. Eli’s never seen a devil look so cozy.
Eli pauses outside the diner doors to check that Isabelle is comfortable, but her hotdog costume is apparently well-insulated. Even her hand in Eli’s is warm. She’s certainly better off than he is, with nothing but a sweatshirt and a thin knit hat against the sharp breeze.
They blend in with the throng as they make their way down the street. The ancient face paint he’d unearthed from the junk drawer makes his nose itch like hell, but Eli is glad for the way that it obscures his features and marks him as one of the monstrous crowd. Standing out is never a good thing in Eli’s experience—safer just to go unnoticed.
Okay, he thinks a moment later, as a trio of especially gory zombies step out to block his path. Okay, that was obviously hubris. This one’s on me.
The lead zombie is easily recognizable, even underneath the fake blood. Perpetually the new kid at school, Eli’s developed a keen memory for faces—especially when it comes to bullies. It took all of a day and a half in Rose Lake for Austin Tanner’s face to be permanently etched into Eli’s lizard brain.
Eli pulls Isabelle to a stop as Austin smiles. It’s a broad, familiar grin, and the faux-bloody smear across his teeth is the nicest thing about it.
“Would you look at this? I can’t believe it!” Austin says. “Has Eli Swann got himself a real, human friend?”
Eli’s gut sinks. It’s a frustratingly familiar feeling.
“Or—I’m sorry,” Austin continues, feigning awkwardness. “Is this a date?”
The two boys behind Austin laugh on cue. No school bully is complete without at least two minions following to snigger at their terrible jokes. Eli risks a closer look and recognizes the gap-toothed sneer and cartoonishly square jaw of Jacob Eames and Dan Wilder, two of Austin’s more vicious cronies.
This really must be his lucky night.
Eli ducks his head and tugs Isabelle’s hand, pulling her in a wide arc around the three boys. That’s the plan, at least, Only Isabelle isn’t moving. It’s like tugging on a statue, and when Eli looks back it’s to find Isabelle standing with feet firmly planted, scowling up at Austin like the world’s angriest hot dog.
“You’re an ass,” she says.
There’s a stunned silence in which Eli sees his life flash before his eyes, and then Austin howls with laughter. It’s about as pleasant as the smile was.
“Isabelle, come on,” Eli says. Half pleads, if he’s being honest. But it’s too late—Dan’s moved to cut off their route around the trio, and Austin has obviously scented blood in the water.
“She’s hilarious,” Austin says with an even meaner grin. “Where’d you find her?”
“He doesn’t have to tell you anything,” Isabelle says, curtly. This is a girl who’s never gotten a swirly in her life, and she’s gonna get them killed. “Let us pass.”
“Or what?” Austin says, baring his teeth.
He’s having the time of his life. Eli can see it on his face, like this is the best thing to happen to him tonight—which puts it smack at the bottom of Eli’s list. Eli’s focus narrows, blood starting its old familiar rush in his ears. Run, run, run, it seems to be chanting. But he can’t, not with Isabelle here. He can’t leave her. Austin will go for him first if he stays; maybe he can use that to his advantage. If he can just—
Then, suddenly, Isabelle starts to cry. Loudly.
The whole weird tableau freezes. And they are a tableau—they all realise it together as the other people on the street turn to see what the commotion is. Suddenly they’re surrounded by staring kids of all ages, many young enough to have their parents with them.
There are . . . a lot of parents, actually.
Clutching at Eli’s arm like a security blanket, Isabelle inches back from the trio as she wails, “Please don’t take our candy!”
Eli gets it at the same time Austin does. For a split second, Austin looks ready to clock Eli anyway. But then—
“Hey!” A woman holding the hand of a tiny, wide-eyed, apple-cheeked cowboy takes a scowling step their way. “What’s going on here?”
Dan breaks first, tugging on Austin’s jacket. “Hey man, let’s go.”
“Mary?” Down the street, a tall, broad-shouldered man starts heading towards them. “Everything okay?”
“Fuck. Scatter,” Jacob says sharply, and he and Dan take off in opposite directions.
Austin backs off, reluctantly taking one step, then two. “See you at school, Eli,” he sneers.
Then he’s running, too, leaving Eli feeling like he’s been yanked out of traffic. By an eight-year-old. He’s only vaguely aware of the woman questioning Isabelle, her small hand still gripping him tightly as she sniffles out answers. He feels like he blinks, and the two adults are walking off, and Isabelle . . .
Isabelle’s face is dry and composed.
Eli stares at her. She’s terrifying. In a different way than Austin, sure, but still.
“That was incredibly manipulative of you,” he says, amazed, and Isabelle grins.
“Thanks! That was fun.” Her hold has loosened, but she leaves her hand in his. “Can we get more 100 Grands on the way?”
The Blake house looks like something that would make a Jane Austen heroine gasp delicately on approach. It’s huge, hogging the curve of the entire cul-de-sac. There are giant columns bracketing a door you could drive a car through and high, arched windows that look like they should have ghosts lurking on rotation. It’s one of the oldest buildings in town mostly because the Blakes are one of the oldest families in town. Eli knows this because half the goddamn place is named for them.
As Eli and Isabelle near the mansion Eli becomes very aware he’s wearing a tracksuit with dollar store craft paint on it. Light and laughter is spilling out the entryway and Eli feels like he’s approaching the mouth of hell, trying not to breathe on the Rolls Royce parked in the drive as he goes.
Isabelle speeds up as they reach the front steps, all but dragging him in her wake.
“Come in!” She says, excitedly. “I’ve been learning foxtrot!”
That sounds . . . like Eli’s worst nightmare. Not least because Isabelle seems to think he should already be schooled in ballroom dancing. Oh god, there’s probably a ballroom. He digs his heels in at the door, rebounding back like some sort of underprivileged vampire. “No, I should—”
They both look up at the new voice. And it’s—
It’s Owen Blake. Owen Blake hurrying toward them down a frankly unnecessary set of ostentatious marble stairs. It’s like every fantasy Eli’s definitely never had after watching She’s All That when he was eleven. Jesus, he’s even in formal wear.
“You’re in so much trouble,” Owen says. And yeah. Eli knows.
Because Owen looks like he should have a soundtrack. Like his gracing a room should be accompanied by an enterprising yet authentic indie rock song. A song that says, Hey there, this is The Guy, the one with the really nice shoulders and the tousled hair. He could whip out an acoustic guitar at any moment and you’d be legitimately into it, isn’t that disgusting?
Eli’s spent a lot of time being offended in Owen’s presence.
Tonight he’s even more offensive than usual, dressed white tie with honest-to-god tailcoats. He should look like an underaged limo driver but instead looks like he’s stepped off the cover of a steamy regency romance novel. Eli only notices the mask in Owen’s hand when he drops to one knee in front of Isabelle. And the top hat. And the rose. Oh god, he’s Tuxedo Mask. It shouldn’t work but it does.
“Mrs. Shultz is shitting bricks,” Owen says, ruining the gravitas of the moment by pulling Isabelle into a hug. He’s wearing white tailored gloves and Eli has to bite the inside of his cheek for an entirely unrelated reason, thanks very much.
“You shouldn’t say ‘shit’,” Isabelle says. Her voice goes wobbly at the end of the sentence and Eli can’t blame her given the night she’s had. It’s probably catching up to her in the worst way.
Then Owen looks up at Eli and Eli can’t imagine her night’s gonna outstrip his. “You’re Eli, yeah?”
Six months of shared classes flash through Eli’s head like a war reel. “Um. Yeah.”
Owen smiles, straightening up, though he keeps hold of Isabelle’s hand. It shouldn’t make something clench behind Eli’s ribs, but here he is.
“Your mom finally got through and told us you were coming,” Owen says. “Thank you for bringing her back safe.”
Eli feels like his whole face might evaporate. “It’s no problem.” It was a slight problem. “It was on my way.” It wasn’t on his way. Then because he’s panicking, he gestures to the rose. “You’re not gonna throw that at me are you?”
Owen laughs like Eli didn’t just hand him the keys to his dignity. “You’re the only one to get it,” he says, and Eli’s suddenly weirdly proud. “Everyone else thinks I’m the Phantom of the Opera.”
Eli forces a smile like that visual isn’t also devastating as hell.
“Is there punch?” Isabelle says suddenly, breaking the tension so beautifully Eli could high five her. “I told Eli we could have punch.”
“There is punch,” Owen says, grinning at Eli like they’re sharing a joke. Like they’re two people who share jokes now. Just two guys, sharing jokes. Joke sharers. Eli’s gonna get a grip any moment now.
Eli swivels, thumbing over his shoulder into the darkness, where no one can hear him berate himself. “I should really get back.”
“Noooooooo!” Isabelle says, like he’s stuck a pin in her. “Staaaaaay!”
Owen nudges her, even as he says, “You sure? It’s all stuffy lawyers fawning over my brother in here, you’d be doing us a favour.”
“Yeah, I’m—” Eli steps back, like he can back away from his burning face. “I have to help mom close up.”
“Oh. Okay,” Owen says, and it’s awkward. God, it’s so awkward. “Thank you again.”
Eli nods. “It was nice to meet you, Isabelle.”
Isabelle waves sadly and Eli nods again, like an idiot, getting one last eyeful of Owen’s tailored suit, and broad shoulders, and really . . . just really nice smile before turning away.
He waits until he’s back to the street to indulge in a hearty facepalm. It’s cleansing. A suitable end to a suitable day. The only cake topper his life needs now is running into Austin and friends again on the way home.
Eli pulls out his phone to check the time, then gets an idea and pulls up Maps instead.
Rose Lake is chiseled from the wilderness of the Adirondack Forest Preserve, but not very well. Sections of the preserve encroach on the town, forcing civilization into large crescents, cutting parts of the town off from each other with swaths of forest.
The Blake house is on the end of such a U, with the main township and the diner at its opposing curve.
Eli pinches into the map and does some math. If he follows the streets he can be back home in about thirty minutes. If he cuts through the woods then it looks like he can make it in half that.
And avoid any chance of running across Austin again. That thought is all Eli needs to turn off the path and into the trees.
The woods are protected land, but humans are an invasive species, and generations of Rose Lake residents have cut numerous paths across the sections of park that butt against the town. Eli finds a wide, well-worn one and sticks to it, yanking his hood up against the evening chill.
Civilization is swallowed quickly by trees, and the streetlamps’ light along with it. Eli considers pulling out his phone, but the path is even, and the moon is just full enough to lend a glow to see by, and he’s hesitant to shatter the atmosphere with technology.
Eli has liked the woods in an abstract, city-kid way ever since they first moved to Rose Lake. After years of one densely-populated area after another, the wildness feels humbling. He remembers the day he and his mother arrived in town, the way he’d wanted to just . . . keep going. Adirondack Park was the biggest forestry preserve in the country. If they could make it past that first border of trees, they’d never be found.
He’s jostled from his thoughts by a rustling off to the right of the path—the sound of something moving through the trees. Something big enough to leave his brain scrambling to pull up everything he read during those first few weeks on local predatory species and what to do when encountering a bear. Isn’t he supposed to make loud noises from a safe distance? His eyes dart back and forth in the meager light. What the hell constitutes a safe distance in the middle of the woods?
Suddenly, the thought of getting lost in the park isn’t as comforting as it was five minutes ago.
Eli steels himself and keeps walking. If it’s some sort of animal—and it is, it has to be— it’s probably more scared of him than he is of it. At least, that’s what his mom says when she hears him making dying whale noises because he’s spotted a spider in their bathroom.
And oh, perfect, now he’s thinking about giant spiders. No more Lord of the Rings marathons for him. New rule.
The rustling stops as he starts walking again, then picks back up. Louder. Closer. Whatever it is, it’s moving faster now, more purposefully. Toward the path.
Eli stops. Freezes, really, as his brain helpfully reminds him that there have been credible mountain lion sightings in the Adirondacks. And didn’t Heather Mills say her brother spotted a moose near the old bridge last summer? He’s full of so much wonderful information about all the local animals that can turn a human being into jam. Sure would have been helpful to recall it before he’d cut through the woods in the dark.
Don’t run, Eli thinks, heart hammering in his chest. He remembers reading something that said you shouldn’t run, shouldn’t turn your back. Then the creature steps onto the path, and Eli’s brain stops trying to be helpful. It has nothing for him, no helpful tips or trivia from his reading, because the only books about something like this are in the horror section. Two legs, hunched shoulders, dark fur. Restless, flexing fingers tipped with ragged claws. Moonlight glinting off of teeth, teeth, teeth, and instinct takes over.
Eli runs, but he doesn’t get far.
It’s like being hit by a train. An impossibly heavy body slams into him from behind and what feels like a steel trap clamps shut over his arm. He sees the creature’s mouth—jaws, his mind babbles, snout—latched onto him, sharp fangs digging in, warm blood soaking his sleeve as it bears down.
His scream is from shock as much as pain. He hits the ground almost as an afterthought, breath punching out of his lungs at the impact. Reeling, gasping for breath, it takes him a moment to realise that whatever has a hold on his arm is dragging him backwards, off the path.
It’s got a nest, he thinks wildly. This hulking mass of fur and teeth—monster, monster, monster—has a nest and he’s gonna be eaten by its cute, furry young. The hand that’s not dangling uselessly from his shredded arm scrabbles helplessly at the forest floor. He digs into dead leaves, into dirt, before his fingers finally snag on a tree root. He fumbles for a desperate grip, and—
And regrets all his life choices as the monster growls low and yanks, tearing him harshly backward. The pain that rips up his arm takes his breath away again, and all that comes out when he tries to yell is a bubbly wheeze.
He’s going to die. Here, like this, cold and alone and dressed as a goddamn skeleton, because apparently the universe loves irony. He could almost laugh, and has the faint, detached thought that that’s probably shock.
There’s a popping sound, and for a staggering moment, Eli thinks its his arm. Then the beast flinches, and its jaw slackens, and he hears—
It’s a woman’s voice, followed by another pop, and Eli realises what the sound is: gunshots. Someone’s shooting at them. What a weird way to become a gun violence statistic, he finds himself thinking, and then suddenly—his arm’s free. It’s like being bitten in reverse, and if anything, it hurts more.
He rolls, scrabbling over gnarled roots and a wide slab of rock, away from the monster. He needn’t have bothered. Glancing frantically over his shoulder, he sees the black, furry mass booking it in the opposite direction. Eli’s heart almost gives out from the relief.
He can just barely make out a dark—thankfully human-shaped—figure chasing it, and Eli bites back a yelp when another one skids to a halt beside him.
“Can you run?”
It’s a girl. His age, maybe younger. He should tell her to be careful, there’s a monster in these woods.
“—you listening? Can you run?” she asks again, her voice lilting with a distinctly non-American accent, and Eli struggles to parse the words. Shock, he thinks again. Amazing how familiar the feeling is after more than a decade.
“I—yes,” he says. His arm is throbbing but his legs are whole, if shaky. The girl yanks him to his feet by his good arm and propels him back the way they’d come, towards the path. Towards town.
“Run!” she tells him, and turns away, following the monster and her companion.
Eli doesn’t hesitate this time. He turns and he runs.
The diner is dark when he lets himself in through the back door. His arm has gone blessedly numb, which probably isn’t a good sign, but whenever his brain tries to tell him so his thoughts swim away from it.
It’s like trying to think through soda water. He can’t hold onto anything and random thoughts keep bubbling to the surface, shifting his focus.
His mother’s pinned a note to the bulletin board at the bottom of the stairs.
Closed up early. Hope you had fun. Get some sleep xo.
He should wake her up. He needs a doctor. Or the police. Or both. Instead, his feet carry him upstairs and down the hall to his bedroom. He doesn’t bother with the lights. Doesn’t bother undressing. His arm is numb and his thoughts are too, and he just wants to sleep.
There’s something in the woods. It’s loud and feral and feels like hitting a wall. A huge bang, bang—
Eli’s body jolts awake before his brain does, and it takes him a moment to realise his mother’s knocking at his door.
“Opening in twenty! Up up!” she calls through the door before her footsteps recede.
It’s a familiar routine. His mother wakes him on her way down to open the diner. This is where he gets up and brushes his teeth and gets ready for school and—
Instead, Eli blinks at the ceiling and tries very hard not to look at his arm. He feels normal, which obviously means his arm’s fallen off and his body is trying not to process that fact. It’s a good approach, really. Smart. Eli’s taking notes because maybe if he never looks at his arm again, he can make it all the way to graduation before reality catches up with him.
Which is when Eli realises he’s rubbing his eyes with both hands and he flails upright.
His arm’s . . . fine.
Eli stares at it. And stares some more. It was a dream, he thinks hysterically. A bad, terrible, shitty dream. Only if it was, he’s still having it. Because while the skin of his arm is smooth and unmarked, the only reason he can see that is because the sleeve of his hoodie is in tatters.
The material scratches when he shifts, and it takes him a second to realise it’s because it’s stiff with dried blood.
His blood. Blood that came from his bloody but entirely undamaged arm.
“Last warning!” his mother calls, and Eli almost startles off the bed.
“Coming!” he yells, hoping the hysteria is only obvious to him.
He strips hastily, throwing the trashed costume into the dark recesses of his closet. Future Eli’s problem. Present Eli has to go to school. And probably flunk a chemistry test.
That, of all things, makes Eli swear as he heads for the bathroom.
Eli makes it to class with a whole thirty seconds to spare, which should earn him a medal after the night he had. Ms. Dhar shuffles some papers on her desk and ignores the last-minute scramble for chairs as the bell rings.
“Good morning, class.” Ms. Dhar squints at them through thick glasses, blinking like a kindly owl. “I trust your sugar crashes aren’t too dire.”
There’s a smattering of laughter, which ought to earn her a medal of her own. There aren’t many teachers considered well-liked by the Rose Lake High student body; Eli’s heard that Ms. Dhar, with her kind eyes and unshakable hatred of pop quizzes, is one of the only teachers in Rose Lake’s history given amnesty from all senior year pranks.
“Today we’ll be analysing the data you collected on last week’s excursion,” she says, and nods at Eli when he raises his hand. “I’ll have some of my own notes available for those who couldn’t attend.”
Which is Eli. And only Eli. Nobody else stayed behind; nobody else formed a third of the team responsible for the town’s only diner.
Eli starts to stand to collect the notes from Ms. Dhar, only to freeze at a knock on the door.
“Ah,” Ms. Dhar says, smiling as she turns towards the sound. “You must be Charlotte.”
The girl in the doorway doesn’t match her smile as she adjusts the backpack on her shoulder. “It’s Charlie, actually.”
Charlie, Eli thinks, barely hearing the rest of the class break out into excited whispers around him.
“Woah, did you hear her accent?”
“Right? She’s British!”
“Oh my God, Emma, Australian. What is wrong with you?”
All Eli can focus on is: Her name is Charlie. What a normal, unremarkable name. She looks normal, too: her long, dark hair is hanging loose and unstyled, and her round, scowling face has the healthy, freshly-scrubbed glow of someone who plays team sports for fun. He wonders if chasing wild animals through the preserve at night counts as a team sport, as long as you’re doing it with others. Eli’s hands are shaking, and he grips the edge of his desk until his knuckles whiten.
Charlie’s surly gaze passes over the class before snagging on him. Her eyes narrow like she’s trying to place his face, then widen in sudden recognition. And finally, she smiles.
“It’s probably best you pair up with Eli. Eli, would you raise your hand?” Ms. Dhar says blithely, and Eli slowly lifts his hand despite never having felt more betrayed in his entire life. “We’re working on data collected on an excursion to Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine last week,” she adds, handing her a messy sheaf of papers. “You can both work with my notes.”
Charlie nods like this is a perfectly rational suggestion. Eli, meanwhile, is busy having a heart attack.
Ms. Dhar moves to her desk, and Charlie heads for Eli, unperturbed by the gauntlet of stares and whispers that accompany every new kid. Having suffered through more than his fair share himself over the years, Eli keeps his eyes fixed on his notebook in a gracious effort to keep from contributing to the attention. It’s not in any way because he’s shitting himself.
The chair next to him scrapes like the creaky-door sound effect in a horror movie, and Eli does his best to focus on Ms. Dhar as she starts the class proper. It’s going great right up until Charlie leans over and whispers, barely loud enough for him to hear.
“How’s the arm, hotshot?”
Eli whips his head around before he can stop himself, heart thundering like he expects to find last night’s monster leering back at him. Instead, there’s only Charlie, a teenager just like him, and as unthreatening a visual as he could conjure. She’s short, soft, and pear-shaped, and the shit-eating grin she levels at him just makes her cuter. It’s an impression severely at odds with the way just looking at her makes Eli’s spine want to crawl out the nearest window.
“I . . . have no idea what you’re talking about,” Eli mutters, choosing denial as the better part of valor.
“Oh, sorry,” Charlie says, rolling her eyes, obviously unimpressed with his tactical decision. “I must have you confused with the other dude who almost became werewolf chow last night.”
Eli very eloquently chokes on his own spit. Ms. Dhar looks like she’s not sure whether to scold him or ask if he’s okay; Charlie’s obviously trying hard not to laugh.
He waits until Ms. Dhar’s attention moves back to the lesson he’s hopelessly failing to follow, then hisses from the corner of his mouth, “You did not just say werewolf.”
“Pretty sure I did,” Charlie sniggers.
“No,” Eli says. It’s an emphatic no. Very clear.
“No?” Charlie pokes his arm—the same arm he heard crunch last night. “How do you explain that then?” she asks.
Eli pretends to take notes. “I . . . ate some bad candy and had a nightmare. That’s all.”
Charlie snorts, loudly enough that a few people glance over. “Yeah, okay, Scrooge.” She pretends to be writing, glances at him again. “Seriously? You’d rather believe that you got food poisoning from some bad nougat and hallucinated a seven-foot tall monster instead of even entertaining the possibility of werewolves?”
“Of course I would!” Eli hisses. “I—”
There’s the sound of a throat being cleared, and . . . shit, okay, that’s definitely a scolding look from Ms. Dhar. He refuses to acknowledge Charlie for the rest of class, scribbling profanities in the margin of his notebook when Ms. Dhar assigns homework for the workshop pairs to complete together. Perfect. Amazing.
When he risks another glance at Charlie, hoping she’ll be as annoyed as he is, she’s putting the final touches on a detailed comic depicting a small figure being mauled by a wolf. Apparently satisfied with the line work, she grabs a red pen to color in the blood.
Ten years later, the bell finally rings. Eli doesn’t pack up, just scoops his books into his arms and bolts for the door.
Eli is a mess of nerves and denial, which is gonna make for one interesting werewolf. Charlie would be amused if there weren’t so much at stake.
Stuff it, she’s still amused. And relieved. She thought enrolling in high school was going to be a giant waste of time—she has bigger werewolves to fry—but here she is lab partners with their best chance of tracking the rogue. Alyssa’s gonna flip. Charlie can’t wait to rub it in her face.
Education is important, Charlie. Damn friggin’ straight it is.
She catches up with Eli despite her short-ass legs and his new fuzzball speed. “Come on!” she says. “This isn’t an ‘ignore it and it’ll go away’ situation.”
“Challenge accepted,” Eli snaps, swinging a hard turn like he’s been yanked stage left by an oversized hook. He’s practically huddled against the lockers, making a show of opening one that Charlie’s honestly surprised to find is his, given his actions are so random.
“What are you doing?” Charlie says, grimacing at the state of Eli’s locker. There’s an apple that’s seen better days almost falling off a crowded shelf, like a sentry to a kingdom of chaos.
Eli just rolls his eyes, flicks his gaze behind Charlie, and braces. The shove, when it comes, is hard enough that Eli bounces off the lockers, but Charlie can tell he exaggerates his wince. So. He’s smart, at least.
The boy who did the shoving is all teeth, from his mean smirk down to his trademark bully swagger. Charlie wants to punch him on principle. Instead she checks on Eli as the bully continues down the hall.
“Are you okay?”
Eli checks Captain Teeth is far enough away and then straightens. “I’m fine,” he says curtly.
“Please leave me alone.”
Charlie shrugs. “I can’t.”
“Right. Because I’m a werewolf,” Eli says, sarcastically.
Charlie’s never been the most patient person—she can hear her sister laughing at that understatement—and Eli’s pressing every button she has with this studied ostrich impression.
So she does what she does best: she snaps. “Fine,” she says, reaching past Eli into his locker. “You don’t believe me?”
“What—” Eli only realises she’s grabbed the apple when she hauls back and throws it.
Right at Captain Teeth’s retreating back.
Charlie watched Event Horizon when she was seven and had nightmares for months. Eli’s face looks like this is his equivalent experience.
The apple collides with the bully’s shoulder and he freezes. Along with half the hall. Ah, that kind of bully then. Eli looks like he’s about to throw up, and Charlie feels a twinge of regret.
Still. Damage done. Might as well roll with it. “Oh my god, Eli!” Charlie yells, like a scandalised grandmother in a strip club.
Eli looks like he’s wondering what it will sound like when Captain Teeth rips his spine out. At least he’s not running, Charlie thinks. And then the bully’s on him.
“You’re dead,” Captain Teeth growls, already swinging.
Eli moves on instinct—Charlie can tell because he looks as surprised as Captain Teeth when the fist sails right past the tip of his nose and into the locker. Charlie can feel the resounding bang in her bones.
The whole hall makes a collective, “Oooooooh,” sound as Captain Teeth curses, even as he recovers and swings again. Eli swerves out of his reach again. He looks a little like a wavy, car-lot tube man and this is the most fun Charlie’s had in months.
Missing a second time just incenses Captain Teeth even more. By the time he rears back to swing again his face is bright red, and there’s a nice cloud of rage-spittle around his mouth. Which makes the third boy stepping between Eli and his attacker particularly badass.
Christopher Nolan’s directing senses are probably itching like crazy.
“Hey!” the new boy says, shoving Captain Teeth back like a letterman-jacket-wearing superhero. “Back off, Tanner!”
Captain Teeth—Tanner—is beyond enraged. Charlie’s seen cartoon characters calmer in the face of adversity. “Fuck off, you fa—”
“Finish that sentence,” Super Letterman snaps, voice made of knives. “I fucking dare you.”
Tanner doesn’t, though his glare practically does it for him. Eli looks like he can feel the eyes of everyone in the hall like a rash. Charlie wants popcorn.
“Yeah, I thought so,” Super Letterman says, and Charlie fights the urge to slow clap. “Walk away.”
And Tanner . . . does. He looks like he’d rather skin himself alive than do it, but his sneakers squeak on the linoleum as he backs up nonetheless.
“Watch your back, Swann,” he says in parting. Eli’s apparently so high on stepping into this alternate reality where he’s not a smear on the lockers he just salutes in reply. And okay, she’s rooting for the kid now.
Reality hits unpause on the hall and students start moving in fits and starts, hissing to each other in excited whispers. This gossip will probably carry them through the next class and a half at least.
Super Letterman turns to Eli, and Eli suddenly looks like he’s swallowed his tongue. Charlie backs up against the lockers and feigns looking at her phone as she shamelessly eavesdrops.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Eli says.
When Charlie takes a quick peek, Super Letterman has an expression that makes him look like he’s wearing a leather jacket by association. It suits him like damn. Charlie’s waiting for an indie soundtrack to drop, any moment now.
“Yeah,” Super Letterman says, “I kinda did. You okay?”
“Yeah,” Eli says, and laughs like he’s just getting blood back into his brain. “He, ah—he missed.”
Werewolf, Charlie wants to hiss, but she’d rather eat her own leg than interrupt the real-life CW show she’s witnessing.
“No shit,” Super Letterman says, breaking into a grin and yeah, okay, she doesn’t blame Eli. If that was aimed at her she’d resemble a bag of mashed potato as well.
“You got some moves,” Super Letterman says, shoving Eli like they’re buddies. Friends. Pals. Only judging by Eli’s expression that’s not the interaction he was expecting, and oh my god, Super Letterman is into Eli too.
Whither art thou, popcorn?
“Yeah.” Eli sounds slightly hysterical. “I think I’d rather have whatever you just did though.”
“Ah.” Super Letterman glances after the bully. “That’d be insider knowledge.” He leans forward like he’s unaware doing so might kill Eli. And Charlie, who wants to sell the rights to this in Hollywood. “Austin’s one more infraction away from being kicked off the baseball team before the season even starts.”
“Being a dickbag isn’t an infraction?” Eli says, and looks like he’s struggling not to high five himself when it makes Super Letterman laugh.
“Not when you have a .300 batting average,” Super Letterman says.
Eli laughs too hard at that, but Super Letterman just glows, so Charlie’s gonna wrack up another point in Eli’s corner.
“Hey, a bunch of us are gonna head out to the cabin after the game tonight,” Super Letterman says, sounding just a bit too casual. “Wanna come?”
Eli’s mouth becomes the MVP of the entire situation by not freezing like the rest of him. “Y-yeah,” he says, with only a slight hitch to betray the way his insides have probably just burst into flames.
Charlie’s witnessing history right here, folks.
Super Letterman grins and Charlie’s three seconds away from sourcing confetti. “Sweet! I’ll see you then.”
And then he’s walking away, and Charlie’s amazed Eli hasn’t thrown up some puppies and maybe a rainbow. Not even turning around to find her lurking like a creeper is enough to dampen his mood.
“That was adorable,” Charlie says and, god help her, she means it. She makes a mental note to find out Super Letterman’s name so she can come up with a portmanteau.
Eli’s grinning as he says, “I’m ignoring you forever now, thanks.”
“Forever” turns out to be until his shift at the diner after school, when Charlie slides onto a seat at the counter. It’s a quiet afternoon: one family of five is making a travesty of the back booth, and Ms Harker is at the counter eating her biweekly slice of pie, but other than that the place is empty.
Eli’s mom is out on an errand, leaving him to handle the customer service. Pros: he’ll get the lion’s share of the tips. Cons: short of dragging Costa out of the kitchen, Eli has to take Charlie’s order.
That doesn’t mean he’ll do it happily, though.
“Welcome to the Rose Lake Diner, what can I get you?”
He takes a petty delight in making his voice as flat and disinterested as possible, biting back a grin when Charlie rolls her eyes. She opens her mouth, but whatever commentary she was about to offer is cut off when a woman takes the stool next to her. Eli looks over, shifting into customer service mode, only to do a double take—height and a few years’ age difference aside, the newcomer is a carbon copy of Charlie.
“You must be Eli,” she says with a warm smile. “I’m Alyssa.”
She’s too young to be Charlie’s mother so . . . sister? Eli flashes back to last night, a dark figure taking off after the monster as Charlie stopped to check on him.
“Alyssa.” Eli starts to cross his arms when the bell above the door jangles and his mom enters, a frown forming as she notices his posture. Fuck, he hates working customer service sometimes. He straightens and settles for holding his order pad particularly aggressively. “You gonna try and get my face punched off too?”
Alyssa doesn’t even blink, just viciously pinches Charlie on the arm.
“What did you do?” Alyssa demands as Charlie squirms away.
“Nothing that wasn’t necessary.” Eli’s gratified to realize Alyssa’s backing him up in the glaring department.
“Okay fine!” Charlie says, throwing up her hands. “It was a dick move, I’m sorry! But you were being stubborn.”
“And you’re a crazy person,” Eli retorts, voice dropping to a hiss when Ms. Harker glances over from where she’s demolishing her apple pie. “Werewolves don’t exist.”
“You went with werewolves?” Alyssa groans, and Eli’s heart sings. He was right! He was absolutely— “Never lead with the truth! You know that!”
“Come on,” Charlie snorts. “What should I have gone with instead, ‘rabid dog’?”
Eli raises a hand. “For the record? I totally would have bought rabid dog.”
Alyssa gestures sharply to him in emphasis as Charlie rolls her eyes again. It’s probably the weirdest conversation Eli’s ever had.
“Whatever,” Charlie says. “Well, that ‘rabid dog’ got away from us last night.” Eli can practically hear the quotation marks. “And we could really use your help tracking it down.”
Eli feels like he’s been sucked into an episode of that show his mom’s obsessed with. God, what’s it called? The one with the hot dudes who hunt demons and never fucking communicate.
“Who are you?” he asks quietly, belatedly realising it should have been the first question out of his mouth when Charlie rocked up in biology. “Why were you even in the preserve last night?”
Charlie opens her mouth and Alyssa clamps a hand over it, a big silver ring glinting on one finger. “Let’s just say we’re here to make sure the thing that attacked you last night doesn’t do it to anyone else. We-—ugh, really?”
She snatches her hand back, grimacing, and Eli feels like she should’ve known better. He’s known Charlie for about three seconds, and he knows she’s the type to lick a person’s hand if the situation calls for it.
“Okay. So,” Eli says as Alyssa scrubs at her palm with a napkin, “how am I supposed to help you with that?”
“Rabid dogs gravitate towards each other on the full moon,” Charlie says.
Jesus Christ. Eli looks between the two, praying for the punchline, but every second that passes makes it more apparent there isn’t one coming. This is happening. And it’s happening to him.
“You’re serious about this,” he says.
“Deadly. Also,” Charlie leans forward like she’s imparting a great secret, and Eli leans in to hear it. “I’d like the cheeseburger.”
His first impression was spot on: Charlie’s a little shit. Eli’s about to tell her so when a voice behind him interrupts.
“Good choice.” His mother’s hand rests on his shoulder, making him jump. “Eli, I need a second after you put in their orders, yeah?”
“Sure. I’ll just—um. Can I get you anything else?” he asks, turning back to the sisters as his mom moves to the end of the counter.
“I’ll take one of those cheeseburgers too,” Alyssa says with a faint smile. “Since they come so highly recommended.”
“Okay. I’ll just . . .” He gestures over his shoulder and steps to the order window. “Hey Costa, two cheeseburgers.”
There’s an ominous twisting in his stomach and a headache building behind his left eye, but there’s no point putting it off. His mom has settled at the counter to work on the books anyway, so it’s not like she wouldn’t notice if he started stalling. With a slight variation of his customer-service smile on his lips, Eli steps over to her.
“Hey.” He grabs a towel and starts wiping the counter. Something to keep his hands busy. “Everything go okay at the bank?”
“It was the daily deposit, it went just fine. Thought I’d stop by the store and pick up some cereal since we’re almost out.” She glances up from the screen, fixing him with a mild gaze that he doesn’t trust at all. “I ran into Mr. Pembroke while I was there.”
“Oh? Interesting.” His head throbs with how badly he doesn’t want this conversation to happen.
“Very interesting,” his mother says. “He happened to mention you failed your pop quiz this morning.”
Of course he did. Of course this is a thing that happens in small towns.
“It was one quiz,” he says.
His mother lowers the laptop screen, and his stomach lurches.
“I don’t care about the quiz,” she says quietly. She means it, too, Eli knows—she’s great like that. “I just want to make sure you’re okay. You’ve never flunked a quiz before, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned from daytime TV it’s that one day you’re failing quizzes and the next day you’re snorting cocaine off bathroom counters.”
“Like I could even find cocaine in Rose Lake,” Eli says, and his mother gives him A Look despite his joking tone. “I’m okay, I promise. I just—I didn’t sleep well last night, that’s all.”
Amazing what heavy blood loss does to your circadian rhythm.
“You’re not getting sick, are you?” she frowns, and he pastes a hasty smile on his face.
“No, I’m fine!” His head throbs again. “I feel great.”
She doesn’t look convinced, but after a soul-searching look she nods. “Okay. Just—” She sighs. “You know I’ve always got your back, right?”
“I know.” And he does—he knows there’s nothing he could tell her that would make her turn her back on him, and he feels better just saying it out loud. Even if he has no intention of saying the w word out loud. Ever.
“I’m so glad I got so lucky with you.” She reaches over the counter and pats his cheek, and the lungful of her perfume is comforting even as it overwhelms him. “Don’t know what I would’ve done if you’d turned out to be a disappointment.”
Eli pulls back to swat at her with the towel, and she laughs, shifting back on her stool.
“Oh! Since I’m such a bright spot in your life,” Eli grins, then grins wider when his mother rolls her eyes, “do you think I can end my shift early tonight?” He goes back to wiping the counter to combat the urge to fidget. “I want to catch the end of the football game.”
“The football game,” his mother repeats flatly. “You. Want to go to a football game.”
“A game in which a ball is in play. A sportsball game, if you will. A—”
“Yes, okay, thank you,” Eli interrupts. “Can I go?”
She smiles. “Clean that back table and you’re good.”
“Have I told you lately that you’re the best mother I’ve ever had?” he beams.
“Why, thank you,” she says, winking at him as she brings her laptop screen back up. “I’ll be putting that on my resume.”
By the time he’s cleaned the horror show at the back table, he’s wrestled himself into some level of logic. The w word aside, something’s happening to him, and Charlie and Alyssa are the only people that might know what. So after he finishes, spends fifteen minutes trying on every shirt in his closet, and returns downstairs, he doesn’t hesitate as he approaches the sisters.
They’re having a heated, hushed argument as he approaches. One that cuts off abruptly when they see him.
“I—” Eli stops, pinching the bridge of his nose. His headache grows along with his anxiety. “Okay look, I might need to ask a few questions.”
“And the ostrich arises,” Charlie says grandly, only to be elbowed by her sister.
Eli covers his whole face as he asks, “I’m going to the game, do you want to come?”
“YES!” Charlie says, suddenly enthusiastic in a way that has nothing to do with sarcasm. When Eli puts his hands down it’s to find Alyssa staring at her suspiciously. Which can’t be a good sign.
Nevertheless, Alyssa says, “I have some research to do,” before turning back to Eli. “You kids have fun.” And then to Charlie: “Don’t do anything stupid.”
Eli’s regretting this already.
They’re halfway to school before Charlie breaks. “Okay hit me. I know you have questions.”
The game is already in full swing—Eli can hear the crowd already, which shouldn’t be possible. So, okay. Let’s start there.
“Why can I hear the game from here?”
“Super senses,” Charlie says happily as they cross the empty street. “Comes with the territory.”
“What else comes with the territory?”
Charlie, for once, looks like she’s considering her answer. “For you? Technically nothing.”
What? “Please talk to me like someone who’s only seen Ginger Snaps once, when he was eight.”
Charlie snorts as she jumps the curb ahead of him. She’s wearing thick-soled combat boots, but even so, Eli has a few inches on her though he’s on the street.
“Sorry,” she says. “A territory is where a pack settles. It . . . grounds the pack. Makes the members less volatile.”
“So without one, I’m gonna be volatile?”
“Eventually.” Charlie has the grace to wince as she drops the news. “The wolf we’re tracking? They haven’t got a pack or a territory. It’s made them . . .”
“Volatile,” Eli says morbidly, rubbing his arm.
“We call it Moon Madness,” Charlie says. “Wolves without a territory eventually lose their humanity. It’s our job to—”
Charlie cuts off but Eli can fill in the blanks. “So you’re hunters?”
“Not really.” She has to raise her voice now they’re nearing the field. “We’re Envoys.” Eli’s face must show his confusion because she continues. “We’re human members of the Harford pack. Werewolves can’t cross territory lines, but Envoys can. We’re tasked with tracking the rogue and either bringing them in, or . . .”
“Killing them,” Eli finishes. She doesn’t dispute it. The night suddenly seems a lot colder than it did before, and Charlie—short, round, spitfire Charlie—seems a lot sharper.
Eli’s never been a sports fan. Sweaty, fit people aside, it’s pointless. But he’s never been so happy to have a conversation cut off by a roaring stand of football enthusiasts.
They’ve caught the end of the game if the timer is anything to go by, so they don’t try to find seats. It’s pointless anyway—Rose Lake High’s sports teams are the town’s pride and joy. Everyone turns up for games, and they collectively celebrate or mourn wins and losses.
The stands are packed full of yelling fans waving bright signs against bright jerseys and brighter stadium lights. In fact, everything’s bright. Even the noise.
Eli doesn’t realise it’s happening until it’s too late: his building headache starts chiselling behind his eyes, making the spotlighted grounds oversaturated and jarring. The lights themselves are haloed and piercing, and the crowd is too . . . too much.
It’s not just the noise; it’s what its made up of. There’s the voices, talking and yelling and muttering, but there’s so much more that Eli’s never noticed before. The crunching of chip packets, the grinding of teeth, and the incessant, omnipresent humming from the stadium lights.
It’s everything, all at once, and Eli doesn’t realise he’s clapped his hands to his ears until he hears Charlie’s muffled voice.
“Focus on me,” she’s saying. “Just my voice. C’mon, filter everything else out. Just me.”
Eli focuses and breathes and focuses and focuses. The crowd fades eventually, but the humming, the humming persists. It’s still a relief.
“What the hell was that?” he gasps, realising he’s hunched over under the stands. When did they move?
“It’s called sensory overload,” Charlie says, not without sympathy. “Fun, huh? My friend Hammy got it all the time. You’re gonna sense a lot more than you used to. Hear more, smell more. Sometimes your brain just kinda freaks out about it.”
“I feel like Hollywood hasn’t really prepared me for this whole werewolf thing.” And, huh. That’s what it feels like to say it out loud.
Charlie pats him on the shoulder, only a little condescending. “It does that about a lot of things.”
Eli scrubs his hands over his face and groans. “I hate this.”
“Hey, look on the bright side,” Charlie says. “You’re gonna be able to climb trees really, really fast.”
“You suck at this,” he says, through his fingers.
“Yeah, but it sounds like someone just scored a touchdown,” Charlie says. “And you didn’t freak out.”
And . . . she’s right. The crowd is roaring, but Eli’s so focused on Charlie he automatically tuned it out.
Charlie looks smug as hell, but Eli can’t even be mad. “You’re welcome,” she says.
The crowd is streaming around them into the bumper-to-bumper traffic in the parking lot when Charlie turns to him, hands tucked neatly in her pockets.
“So. What’s the plan, Wolfman?”
“Don’t call me that,” Eli says immediately. Then, “What do you mean?”
“Look, we both know you didn’t want to come here for the game.” She gives him a look, and the tips of his ears go so hot he’s surprised they don’t steam in the cold. “There’s a party at some cabin, right?”
“How did you know about that?” he frowns.
“Are you serious?” she groans, rolling her eyes so hard she probably gives herself a headache. “I was literally standing two feet away when Captain Letterman invited you. So? What’s the plan, is he meeting us here, or what?” Charlie’s expectant look grows to an impatient stare, then to dawning disbelief. “You did make a plan, right?”
“I can’t believe you don’t even know where you’re meeting your date!”
“He caught me off guard!” Eli protests. “Owen barely talked to me before last night when I took his sister home, I wasn’t prepared! And it’s not a date.”
“Wow. There’s just. There’s a lot to unpack there.” She lowers her chin, burrowing down into the thick scarf wrapped around her neck, and shakes her head. “I don’t even know where to start.”
“How about we just don’t, then?”
Eli shoves his hands into his pockets and tries to stay calm. She’s right, he has no idea what he’s doing. Maybe Owen wasn’t serious when he invited him. Maybe he was, but he changed his mind. Maybe—
“Hey!” The sound of an approaching group is cut through by a familiar voice, and Eli jerks his head up to see Owen breaking away from the pack, loping up to them with a broad grin. “You made it!”
“Yeah, well.” Words, Eli. Use your words. “It was pretty slow at the diner, so. Thanks for inviting me.” An elbow jabs into his ribs as they follow after the group, and he barely stifles a yelp. “Uh. Us. This is Charlie.”
“I’m new,” she says brightly, and—though it might be his imagination—eases a casual half-step away from him. “So, where’re we going?”
“There’s an old tuberculosis cure cabin out behind the school,” Owen explains, and nods towards the trees looming at the far side of the field. “We do post-game bonfires there.”
Charlie looks between them. “We’re going to a cabin in the woods.”
“We’re going to a cottage in the forest?” Owen says, spreading his hands and smiling, like he’s trying to look as non-threatening as possible.
“An abandoned cottage,” Eli interjects with a grin of his own. He has to admit, this tradition is weird as hell. “Where people died of tuberculosis.”
“Ah!” Owen says, holding up a finger like he’s John Watson. Eli would swear on a stack of Bibles that his eyes are sparkling. Unbelievable. “Then why is it called a ‘cure’ cabin?”
“I’m guessing because doctors didn’t know how tuberculosis worked,” Charlie says, lengthening her stride to keep up with them. “And ‘cure cabin’ is way better PR. Anyway, if I go missing, please know my sister has a gun.”
That particular dose of reality is a mood-killer, but Owen doesn’t seem to notice. He laughs, clapping Eli on the shoulder as he’s pulled away by a cheerleader.
“Okay. Maybe not a date,” Charlie admits, linking arms with Eli as they trek across the near-empty football field. It’s . . . pleasant. “I really appreciate the fact we’re willingly entering the woods where you were attacked by a werewolf last night.”
Or it was.
“We’re in a group?” Eli says, unable to hide the fact he’s tacking a question mark to the end of that sentence. “Plus,” he adds, “there’s gonna be a bonfire. In the middle of the woods.” He pauses. “That’s really fucking stupid, isn’t it?”
“Are you just realizing that for the first time?” Charlie snickers, and he shrugs.
“It’s not like I’ve ever been before. Post-game bonfires are for the team and their group. I’ve never been either.”
“Until now. You were invited by Owen Blake,” Charlie says. She leans in conspiratorially. “Who looks scarily like that dude from The Covenant.”
Oh god, he does. That . . . explains a lot.
“That movie was total trash,” he says halfheartedly, and Charlie pokes him in the side.
“You’d have to have watched it to know that.”
“Yeah, well.” Eli grins. “I never said it was bad trash.”
That gets a laugh out of Charlie and . . . it’s nice. It’s nice walking arm-in-arm with someone who talks like they already have in-jokes, and it’s nice to have Owen Blake shooting him a smile over his shoulder, and it’s nice to be among people and just be.
He could get used to this.
Charlie breaks off to mingle when they get to the cabin, and Eli could also get used to the way that Owen seeks him out as soon as they’ve got the bonfire going. The way he tucks into Eli’s side against the cold like it’s a normal thing to do.
Charlie’s shoots him a thumbs up from the other side of the bonfire and he almost bursts into flames himself.
“I’m really glad you came,” Owen says quietly, making Eli look at him in surprise. “I wasn’t sure you would—it doesn’t seem like you’re much of a joiner. I mean.” He frowns. “That sounded bad, but I didn’t mean—”
“No, it’s fine.” Eli’s face is only warm because they’re sitting so close to the fire, and that’s the story he’ll stick to even under pain of torture. “You’re right. I’m, uh . . .” He laughs a little. “I guess you could say I’m kind of a loner.”
“You made friends with the new girl right away, though.” Owen’s smiling softly at him when Eli glances over again. “You didn’t just let her try to navigate a new school on her own. That’s really cool of you.”
“I didn’t really do anything.” Eli darts a look to where Charlie is standing, red Solo cup in hand, laughing unselfconsciously at something with another group. “I don’t think Charlie’s the type to have trouble fitting in. But thanks.”
They lapse into silence, and Eli’s heart speeds up. Why can’t he just talk? Say something, like a normal person! He’s never been good at this, always found it easier to stay the weird loner new kid rather than stumble through the unfamiliar territory of socialization rituals he never quite learned. And Owen is still pressed against his side, warm and solid and he smells so good, damn it, it’s hard to focus on anything else.
“Nah,” Owen finally says. “I don’t buy it.” He leans in, giving Eli’s shoulder a gentle nudge. “You look out for people. Isabelle says hi, by the way, and she told me to invite you over to the house to hang out.”
Eli blinks. “She did?”
“Yeah. I figured I’d start with something where it was just you and me, though.” Their eyes meet for half a second before Owen takes a drink, and Eli can’t tell if the red tint to Owen’s face is a flush or just the reflection from the plastic cup. “My house is kind of a zoo lately, anyway. My brother’s taking some time off of school, and it’s just kind of . . . tense. I ended up bailing on the Halloween party like five minutes after you left. Just couldn’t take it anymore.”
“Oh.” Bolstered a bit, Eli shifts so he’s angled towards Owen, though he almost can’t stand to lose the feeling of the other boy’s body against his. “Your parents don’t like your brother taking a break from school?” he guesses.
“That’s putting it mildly,” Owen snorts. “It’s . . . complicated, but even if everything else was great, my dad’s freaking out about the idea of Mike missing a whole semester.”
Eli nods. “He’s pretty intense about school, I guess.”
“He’s—my mom says ‘goal-focused’,” he says, making air quotes with his free hand. “He’s got these set ideas about what he wants for his kids. He wants Mike to be a lawyer.”
“What does he want you to be?”
“Straight.” Owen looks down, his hand tightening around his cup before he visibly makes himself loosen his grip. “My dad hasn’t wanted much to do with me since I came out.”
“Woah. That . . . that sucks. I’m sorry.” It’s not like he doesn’t know that that sort of thing still happens, but somehow it still feels like a shock. Like the world should’ve moved beyond that by now. “My mom was surprisingly chill when I told her I was bi. Uh.” Way to rub it in, asshole. “Sorry, that—I was going for like, empathetic support, not . . .”
“No, no, I get you.” Owen smiles at him, only a little bit hesitantly. “Your mom sounds cool as hell, though. You’re really lucky.” Eli’s face must do something because Owen continues. “Hey, it could be worse. He could have kicked me out.”
“Yeah.” Eli’s stomach drops just at the thought. “Still sucks, though.”
“Yeah. Yeah, it does.” Owen shakes his head. “Sorry, I’m being a total downer right now.”
“It’s totally fine!” Eli says. I don’t care what we talk about, I just want to be near you. No, shit, don’t say that! “If you ever need, you know. Someone to talk to? I, uh . . . I’ve got a lot of free time.”
He absolutely doesn’t, but he can’t be the first person to tell that lie, and he refuses to regret it. Especially when . . .
“I’d like that,” Owen smiles. “You’re really easy to talk to, you know that? I thought you’d be harder to approach, or I would’ve talked to you sooner.”
“You would’ve?” This time Eli’s certain the flush on Owen’s face doesn’t have anything to do with the firelight. The air between them feels charged, and Eli’s head is full of the scent of woodsmoke and cheap beer and Owen, and if he isn’t careful he’s going to—
“You’ve got to be shitting me! What the fuck is he doing here?”
Eli looks up but Owen moves quicker, surging to his feet in front of Eli like some weird echo of this afternoon, because it’s Austin throwing a royal fit as he rounds the fire toward them. Of course it is.
“Leave him alone, Tanner,” Owen says firmly. “I invited him.”
“Of course you did,” Austin sneers.
He doesn’t even slow his approach, which means the punch he throws lands with a sickening crack and all his weight behind it. Owen goes down like a sack of bricks, and people are shouting, but Eli’s not one of them. All he can see is Owen on the ground, and the blood on Austin’s fist, and then he’s catching Austin’s wrist as it swings towards him and twisting.
The snap of bone is audible—a clear crack, and then he hears Austin’s screams, and it was so easy.
He doesn’t feel himself let go, but he must, because Austin is staggering back from him, clutching his broken arm like a wounded animal. Like Eli had last night in the woods. He’s vaguely aware that everyone has gone quiet looking at him, but Eli can’t focus on anything but Owen’s blood in the dirt and the memory of Austin’s face when they’d both felt the snap.
Easy. So easy. So good.
He’s taken two steps forward before he stops himself and fights past the howling in his blood urging him to press the advantage, to finish it. His fists are clenched at his sides, his chest is heaving with furious, panting breaths, and all he wants to do is take one more step. One more step and he can make Austin pay for every awful thing he’s done in his miserable, pathetic life.
Austin is staring at him with wide, shocky eyes, his face bone-white as he cradles his arm to his chest. Terrified.
Rip him apart. It would be so easy.
Eli stumbles back, shaking.
And he runs.
There are footsteps behind him, running after him. He doesn’t look back. If he gets the shit kicked out of him it’s no more than he deserves, but they’ll have to catch him first.
“Eli!” Shit. Shit, shit, shit. Charlie. He runs faster. “Eli, wait!”
He’s faster than she is; he knows it in his bones. But he doesn’t know the woods, and all his new speed gets him is a hard fall when his ankle slams against a tree root and knocks him off his feet. He can’t just hear Charlie now—he can smell her, practically taste her scent in the air. Eli switches to pulling in shallow, panicked breaths through his mouth, trying to block out as much as he can as he curls in on himself amidst the fallen leaves.
“Hey.” Charlie’s voice is gentle, like it was when she talked him down . . .Jesus, an hour ago, if that. “Eli? Hey, I need you to breathe, okay? It’s okay. You’re okay.”
But he’s not. He feels a familiar tightening in his chest, and as his head swims he hears himself make a noise that sounds like a snarl.
“Eli?” Charlie sounds less certain now. “Eli, talk to me.”
“I . . .” He summons every scrap of control he has, focusing on her voice the way he did before, and manages to look up at her. “I think something’s wrong.”
By the time they’ve made it to Rose Lake’s only motel, Eli’s sprouted claws. Which, as weird shit goes, is edging towards the highlight of his evening. Even Charlie seems rattled as she wraps his hands in her scarf and yanks him the last few feet to her room.
Alyssa greets them with an unholstered gun in her hand because this is his life now, apparently. “What’s happened?”
“He’s turning,” Charlie says, and if her face is anything to go by, Eli’s not imagining the panic in her tone.
He doesn’t get the chance to ask what has her so spooked before a wave of agony rips through him, sending him to his knees on the stained carpet. Charlie’s scarf doesn’t survive the fall, torn clean through on claws that are sharper than they look.
Every time he closes his eyes he sees Austin’s face, the split second they’d both felt the crack. With claws like this he could’ve gutted him with one blow. God, he wants to throw up.
“—can’t be turning!”
“Why can’t I be turning?” Eli gasps, sagging as the wave pasts. It’s not his first. They’ve been getting stronger the whole way here, threatening to tear him in two with the pain.
Alyssa’s upside-down face swims into his vision and it takes him a moment to realise he’s on the floor, head in Charlie’s lap.
“If you turn without a pack—” She cuts off but Eli can see the rest of it on her face.
He’s strangely calm even as he says, “I don’t want to die.”
Charlie doesn’t realise she’s crying until she has to bite her own fist to stifle a sob. This isn’t how this was supposed to go. They were going to bring in the rogue and get Eli home. He’d join their pack and Charlie would tease him about his bad breath during his first shift and they’d laugh about it—they’d laugh so hard.
Instead she’s watching him crumple in her lap, bones in his forearms shifting grotesquely as his body fights the turn. She watched this once already. She can’t do it again.
If they can just get him back to their pack—
Alyssa comes back from the bathroom with a wet towel and Charlie grabs her arm. “Look after him.”
“What?” Alyssa says, startled. “Where are you going?”
“To do something stupid.”
Closing up the Diner is becoming a routine, one Penny can’t help but welcome after so many years spent on the road. It’s good for her. More importantly, it’s good for Eli.
He’s a tough kid—anyone who’d been through what he had would be—but he’s also one of the most compassionate people Penny’s ever known. He hasn’t had enough chances to indulge that side of himself, moving around as they had, cutting ties as fast as he could forge them. Rose Lake has been a long time coming and it’s oh so welcome.
As she shutters the blinds and flips the Closed sign on the door, Penny allows herself a spark of optimism, sputtering on a wick long-neglected.
Which makes the sudden hammering on the door like a bucket of ice water down her spine. Her first thought is, they’ve found us. But her second, they’ve found Eli, is strong enough to have her leaping for the handle.
The girl—Charlie—looks like she’s run from demons all the way to Penny’s door, and the look on her face does nothing to curb Penny’s rising panic.
“It’s Eli,” Charlie says. “He needs you.”
Eli’s teeth itch, which is one of the weirder sensations he’s ever experienced. When he reaches shaking hands to his face it’s to find his mouth is . . .full. Full and itching and then another wave of pain hits and he loses minutes—hours?—until he can’t—
“Why haven’t you called an ambulance?!”
As soon as he calls, she’s there, warmth and safety and home. Eli curls into her, and he spares half a thought that he probably looks like the tail end of a horror movie right now. But his mother’s his mother, and she just holds him, rocking back and forth in a way that makes Eli’s spine loosen and his breath ease. And the pain . . . the pain is suddenly a creature to be collared and tied down.
“Shhh,” His mother says. “It’s okay. I have you, I have you.”
“I have you,” Eli says, and lets the darkness take him.
The streets are quiet, no monsters in sight. In the diner, not so much.
It’s late enough that light is beginning to trickle through the blinds, casting long shadows across checkered tiles and the single full booth. Four Eli specials sit demolished in front of four individuals, each as tired as the last.
It’s been a long night. And a longer conversation.
“How did you know it’d work?” Eli’s mother asks, hand reaching over to squeeze his.
Charlie’s eyes pinch, one of a dozen signs of residual stress. “I didn’t. But I hoped.”
Eli’s mother’s grip tightens, and Eli turns his hand over so he can squeeze back.
“We’re human members of a werewolf pack,” Charlie continues. “I figured if humans can be pack, then—”
“Then I’d be Eli’s,” Eli’s mother finishes and smiles. “Good call.”
“This isn’t over,” Alyssa says, having the grace to look apologetic as she delivers the news. “You staved off a premature shift but you’ll still have to make it through the full moon. You’ll have a better chance with a territory and full pack behind you.”
Which means moving again. Eli looks to his mother to find her looking back. We’re in this together, kiddo, her look says.
“And you’re sure your pack will take us,” Eli’s mom says, and Eli could hug her for how she stresses ‘us’.
Alyssa nods. “I’ve already called them.”
And just like that, Eli’s putting Rose Lake in his tail lights. He’s surprised to find the thought gets stuck in his throat—the memory of a body pressed against his side is one that particularly stings.
“What about the rogue?” Eli asks, and if it distracts him from warmer thoughts then so be it.
“The full moon’s been and gone,” Alyssa says. “We have a bit of time to track them before they hurt anyone else.”
Jen Harker hurts. She knows a broken arm when she feels it and a particularly jagged root has made a mess of her back. And the bite . . . the bite throbs.
It isn’t fair.
She can’t help the thought. She’s a woman of simple interests: good coffee, good books, and regular indulgences of both. A slice of pie twice a week if she’s earned it. She thinks she deserves an equally simple death, not whatever this is—this pain and terror and chanting and blood, so much blood. But in the end, when the black comes, all that’s left is relief.
In the end, it’s simple after all.
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