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.
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