The morning is cool and crisp, the crunch of fallen leaves beneath her feet so blissfully autumnal that Carrie is almost too distracted to notice the dark stain that cuts across the path. She pauses, breath steaming in the chilly air, still running lightly in place. She runs this trail every morning, knows every stretch and curve of it like the back of her hand, and she’s never seen that before: a splash of some rusty brown liquid, not quite soaked fully into the dirt, leading into the brush beside the path.
The brush that, she’s fairly certain, never had quite so many broken branches, or looked quite this trampled down.
Almost as if something had been dragged through it.
Carrie hesitates. She should finish her run, go home, and shower. Go to work. Definitely not go tromping into the undergrowth to find a—a dead deer or something. Especially not when whatever killed it might still be in the area. Might still be hungry.
There’s something tangled on one of the snapped branches. Something that looks . . . almost like a snarl of blonde hair.
I’m going to have to call in late to work, she thinks, her heart racing, and she steps off of the path.
“I—yes, that’s right. I understand.” Eli’s mom wanders into their tiny kitchen, rolling her eyes dramatically. “I know we might get a better offer with a longer listing time, but I need to—yes, even if it could be dramatically more.”
She paces back out of the room, either because she doesn’t want to distract Eli with the argument or because she doesn’t want him to hear her cursing. He gives it about fifty-fifty odds either way.
Eli is a mess. He still can’t shake the guilt that’s been nagging at him since last night. He remembers how excited his mom was just a few months ago, remembers stopping for the night on their way to Rose Lake and sitting with her at the tiny motel room table as they drew up a five-year plan together. Five years. It was the furthest ahead he could remember the two of them planning anything. His mom’s eyes had been bright as they’d gone over the diner’s menu, brainstorming ideas for new items they could introduce now that it was theirs.
And now they’re leaving. Again. Because he decided to cut through the woods one night instead of taking the long way home.
Oh, and there’s also the little matter where he broke someone’s arm and is, frankly, expecting either the police or a PTA mob to break down the door at literally any moment.
He opens up a new tab and brings up another website, filling out his search terms with the speed of long practice. He hates trying to find an apartment before his mom has a job lined up in their new city, but it makes for a decent distraction. And at least Charlie told him what area they’d want to look in so that the two of them would be going to school together. He’s never started a new school where he’s had a friend already waiting for him, and it makes the idea of leaving sting a little bit less.
Not much, but. A little.
“Okay.” His mom comes back in and drops down into the other chair, looking exhausted. “Roger’s going to start drawing up the paperwork. As soon as we have a buyer, we’ll be ready to go. I’ll call the high school tomorrow to see what they’ll need to get you enrolled. What’s left on the list?”
“The usual,” Eli shrugs. “Packing. Finding a job. Apartment.”
“Anything good so far?”
“One place that looked great.” He shakes his head. “The listing was totally shady, though. The place didn’t even show up on Google Maps—we’d have shown up and found out we signed a year lease on somebody’s closet or something.”
“You’ve got good instincts, kid,” she laughs, pushing herself to her feet and brushing a hand over his shoulder on her way to the fridge. “You thirsty?”
“I’m good. Hey. Mom?”
“I’m sorry.” He sees her turn around, but he can’t quite bring himself to look directly at her. “It’s my fault we’re moving again. We had a plan here, and now we’ve gotta abandon it, and I know you wanted—”
“Hey now.” She’s next to him in a flash, her hand gripping his chin to lift his face up until he finally meets her gaze, fierce and determined. “The only thing I wanted—the only thing I want—is for the two of us to be safe and happy. If that’s not here, it’ll be somewhere else, because all that matters is that we’re together. You got it?”
“Yeah,” he says, and his smile feels a little watery, but it’s real. “I got it.”
“You sure?” She looks skeptical, even with the smile she can’t quite keep out of her eyes. “Because I’ll make you write it out a hundred times on the chalkboard if that’s what it takes for it to sink in.”
“That’s the special board, mom.”
“And you write on it with chalk. Don’t backtalk your mother.” She presses a kiss to the top of his head before she heads back to the fridge. “So, other than the shady closet listing, how’s it look? Anything worth following up on?”
“A few places seem like they’d be okay. I’ve got a list going.”
“And what about your actual homework?”
“Already finished. There’s nothing really—” His phone buzzes on the table and he picks it up. “Nothing really tough. I didn’t have a lot.”
There’s a text from an unfamiliar number waiting for him:
someone found a body in the park
Then, a moment later:
this is charlie btw
Eli’s blood runs cold as he stares at the screen. He doesn’t know why Charlie would be telling him about a body, unless . . . well. Unless she thought it was werewolf-related.
Fuck his life right now, for real.
I’ve been home and at the diner all day, he finally texts back, and Charlie’s answer pops up almost immediately.
duh it’s not like i thought u did it. police are trying to keep it quiet but i guess it’s p brutal. how u feeling?
Fine? Freaked, but fine. Shouldn’t I be?
just lmk if you start feeling bitey
Fuck. His. Life.
hey small towns are gossipy right? lmk if you hear anything. maybe the vic knew the rogue, might be a lead
‘Vic’? Who are you, David Caruso?
just keep your ear to the ground, furball
Ear to the ground. Right.
Turns out working at the town’s only diner is the best ground ever to have one’s ear on. The dead body is all anyone is talking about, though without any official statements everything Eli’s making a point to overhear is filtered through someone’s neighbor’s nephew.
So far he knows it might have been an animal attack, a serial killer, or aliens—that last one courtesy of Mrs. Lilly, who thinks aliens have been mowing her lawn for the last four years. Then again, with Eli’s newfound furry status, who knows; maybe E.T. really is worried about old ladies’ hedges.
Still. His money’s on animal attack, provided you use a fairly liberal definition of “animal”.
His best chance of a clear idea of what’s going on turns up at 8 a.m. on the dot for his regular ham and cheese bagel. Deputy Ron August is a man that walks like he’s taking gravity personally, every step measured, precise, and poised as though he’s expecting to come upon a sharp cliff at any moment. Whenever he comes into the diner Eli has to squash the urge to ask him if he’s okay. Today is no different.
“The usual, Deputy?” Eli asks, clutching his notepad as the deputy climbs up onto a stool with the concentration of a mountaineer.
“Thank you, my boy,” August says like there isn’t a mere stone’s throw between their ages.
Eli pours the deputy a coffee and steels himself before blurting out, “Busy day for the department.” Shit. “I heard.” Shit. “Around town?”
He’s officially awful at this. August knows it too, just gives him a look over his first sip of coffee that makes Eli rethink the gap between their maturity levels.
“Hmm,” August says, noncommittally. “I’m sure the grapevine’s already come up with ten different scenarios that are more interesting than the truth.”
“Which is . . .?” Eli says, hope like a brittle thread in his voice.
Deputy August rolls his eyes. “You’re terrible at this.”
Eli deflates like a balloon. “Tell me about it.”
Costa’s yell of, “Order up!” at the kitchen window almost drowns out August’s laugh.
Of course, there are more direct means of getting information about the body. Which is how Eli finds himself outside the town morgue at 2am watching YouTube tutorials on how to jimmy a window lock.
The mortuary is shuttered and quiet, the employees probably long home and asleep. Just like he should be, dammit. Only he can’t get the thought out of his head: animal attack. The bite mark on his arm may have disappeared, but he’s not an idiot. To someone not in the know, a werewolf attack might well look like a random animal attack. And if the rogue killed someone. . .
A part of him is arguing that this isn’t his problem. He didn’t ask to be attacked, to be thrown head-first into sharp claws and sharper teeth.
But he’s here now. And what he does next speaks more to his own moral compass than anything else.
The low basement window is as old as the rest of the building, with locks to match. Eli’s able to slide his high school ID card between the two panes and shift the rotating catch to open it. Or rather, that’s the plan until his ID gets jammed and he’s suddenly very aware that he’s just stuck something with his face on it in the lock of a building he’s trying to illegally break into.
His heart starts hammering as he tries to pull his card free, the window rattling loud enough that Eli fervently checks over his shoulder. Nothing. This side of the mortuary faces a blind alley between it and the post office. Eli turns back—
—and promptly has a heart attack.
He yelps, falling away from the window—and the face in it—onto his ass. He’s dead. He’s so dead.
And then he realizes the face is laughing. The super familiar face.
Charlie opens the window, still quietly cackling at him. “You should have seen your face.”
Jesus Christ. “What are you doing here?” Eli hisses.
“Same thing you are, hot shot,” Charlie says, stepping back from the window. “C’mon.”
Eli checks both ways down the alley but his yelp doesn’t seem to have alerted anyone of his foray into criminality. He slides forward and shuffles through the window, landing light-footed on the cold, tiled floor. His ID is under the window and he makes a point of securely pocketing it before he follows Charlie further into the darkness.
The mortuary is cramped, more of an afterthought than a real facility—Rose Lake isn’t big and Eli can’t imagine it gets a lot of use. Certainly not suspicious-death use, anyway. The room they’ve landed in is like something out of a crime procedural with the budget of a student horror movie. One wall is a bank of square doors just begging for a down-and-out detective to roll a body out of. In the middle of the floor is a metal table, all the creepier for how perfectly polished it is.
Charlie leads him across the room and into a small side office where Alyssa is hunched over the lone computer’s keyboard. She looks up when they enter and groans.
“You owe me ten bucks,” Charlie says. Eli doesn’t know whether to be impressed or offended.
“What’re you doing here?” Alyssa says, turning her attention back to the computer.
Eli hesitates. What is he doing here? “I had to know,” he says, not bothering to elaborate. There’s really only one reason he’d be interested in a dead body given the circumstances.
“You should have told us,” Charlie says. “We could have carpooled.”
And . . . she’s right. There’s no reason for him not to have been a team player, only . . . he can’t remember the last time he had a team. Uncomfortable, he just shrugs.
“What’re you doing over there?” he says to Alyssa.
She doesn’t look up as she answers. “The coroner hasn’t looked at the body yet,” she says. “We want access to the paperwork when they do.”
“She’s hacking the matrix,” Charlie says.
Alyssa rolls her eyes. “I’m installing spyware.”
Wow. This is definitely more boring than TV had led him to believe. Out of habit, Eli pulls out his phone. He and Owen never swapped numbers so he’s been a little obsessive about checking his Facebook friend requests.
“Are you Instagramming your first break-in?” Charlie says and Eli can’t help his small laugh.
“No, just . . .” He doesn’t finish the sentence.
“You could friend him, you know,” Charlie says and Eli has to fight the urge to clutch his phone to his chest like an offended old lady.
“You so were,” Charlie scoffs good-naturedly even as she lunges for his phone. “Here, I’ll do it.”
But his reflexes are too fast—Charlie’s left two feet short as Eli holds his phone securely out of her reach. Good to know he’s getting something out of this whole werewolf thing. Charlie whines like a five-year-old and Alyssa groans.
“Can you two please take this somewhere else?”
Charlie’s eyes light up. “Wanna see the body?”
Before he can answer, Charlie’s dragging him into the examination room. It’s obvious they’ve already looked at it because she bee-lines for one of the square doors before turning back to him. “Coming?”
And Eli . . . doesn’t know. He’s never seen a dead body before. Even when his dad died it was his mom who identified the body. Eli had been left in the hall, tears coming too hot and fast. He finds himself biting back the familiar sting even as he takes a step forward.
Charlie clearly has no qualms about dead bodies, unhesitating as she opens the cooler door and pulls out the metal tray. It’s too loud in the hush of the mortuary and Eli flinches instinctively. It’s easy to forget that they’re somewhere they shouldn’t be. Everything just seems so . . . ordinary.
Then Charlie pulls back the sheet over the corpse and things become very unordinary.
Apple pie. Twice a week like clockwork. It was her favourite, she’d told him once. It reminded her of her grandmother.
Ms. Harker looks pale and strange and very dead. Her neck is a mess of pink flesh, the blood long-since drained—whatever killed her tore out her throat. Eli sucks in a breath and suddenly wishes he hadn’t. She smells like raw meat, like the stock Costa defrosts every morning before the breakfast rush. There’s a bitterness, too, something acrid and heavy on his tongue. It’s the same way Austin smelled when his arm had snapped in the woods.
Steeling himself, Eli takes a step forward. This close he can see a flash of white in the mess that is Ms. Harker’s neck. Bone. Charlie’s only uncovered her to her chest, but even Eli can recognize the bite on her shoulder for what it is.
“Are you okay?” Charlie says, probably just now realising that dead bodies aren’t a big theme in most people’s lives.
Eli swallows. Is he? “Yeah,” he says finally. “I know her . . . knew her. She’s a regular at the diner.”
“Oh,” Charlie says, awkwardly. “Sorry.”
Eli shakes his head and takes another breath. It’s no better than the first but it gives him an idea. “If this is the rogue, could I smell it on her?” he asks.
Charlie shakes her head. “Maybe if you’d had a few years to get used to your senses,” she says. “New wolves are crap at differentiating input.”
Eli looks down at Ms. Harker again. She’s no less dead than before and Eli finds it makes him angry. “But I can try?”
Charlie has the decency to look sympathetic. “You can try.”
Before he loses his nerve, Eli bends over and takes a deliberate breath through his nose. But Charlie’s right: underneath the stomach-churning meat smell, there’s just a riot of different threads. The smell he thinks is fear—probably a specific mix of sweat and pheromones—undercuts everything, but other than that it’s a jumbled mix of decaying plant matter, a sharp woodsy smell, metallic blood, and countless other scents that coalesce into a brown sludge across his senses.
He wrinkles his nose as he straightens and Charlie raises her eyebrows. “Um. She smells like the park.”
Charlie pats him on the shoulder like she’s handing him a participant trophy. “Well, an attempt was made.”
“Done,” Alyssa says suddenly, and Eli’s half surprised he doesn’t jump out of his skin. “Let’s get out of here.”
Eli takes one last look at Ms. Harker before Charlie covers her face again. He’s very aware of how close he came to being in her place, a body behind a square door in a cramped mortuary. More urgent, though, is the feeling that it’s the last of its kind he wants to see.
“Would you just send him a friend request already?” Charlie sighs. “It’s not a marriage proposal, it’s just fucking Facebook.”
“I . . .” Eli’s mind spins, trying to figure out how to explain the complicated high school social strata, unspoken rules of engagement, and social norms that make her absolutely wrong. Not worth the time it would take, he decides, and forces himself onto a different track. “That’s not what I was doing.”
“Sure.” Charlie pulls her backpack on like a Babybjörn and leans against the lockers as she starts digging through the main pocket. “I’m sure you kept your phone in your locker all day to avoid the temptation of Candy Crush.”
“I didn’t hear from him all weekend.” Eli stares mournfully at his phone, unable to keep up even the shadow of pretense. “He must have been totally freaked by what happened at the bonfire.”
“Hey, speaking of you Hulking out, what’s the fallout been?” She pulls a granola bar from her bag with a triumphant noise. “Alyssa and I are standing by to smooth things over, but you’ve gotta keep us in the loop, yeah?”
“How could you—nope.” Eli slams his locker shut and heads for the front door without looking back. “Don’t wanna know.”
“Hey.” Charlie grabs his elbow, though she keeps pace beside him without complaint. “I’m serious. We’ve got your back. You know that, right?”
The tension in his shoulders loosens just a little. “I know. And I appreciate it, even if you make it sound like creepy Illuminati shit sometimes.” They push through the door, and after a day drowning in teenage body odor and terrible body sprays, the crisp, fresh air is the best thing he’s ever smelled. He glances around as they make their way down the front walk. “There hasn’t been any fallout, though. I keep waiting for it, but—I mean, I broke Austin’s arm,” he says, lowering his voice nervously. “I figured I’d at least get called in by the principal or the team coach or something. It’s weird, right? That I haven’t gotten in trouble?”
“Well‒incoming,” Charlie mutters, taking a step back and staring down at her own phone just as he turns his head to see Owen making his way towards them, hand raised in a wave.
“Owen!” Eli says, louder than he intended, and tries to clear his throat without being too obvious about it. “Owen. Hey.”
“Hey, Eli.” His smile is friendlier than Eli would’ve expected for a guy with a black eye, a guy who’s been conspicuously silent on all social media fronts since he saw Eli snap another guy’s arm on Friday. “I was hoping I’d catch you before you left. Hey Charlie,” he adds.
“Hmm? Oh, hey. Sorry,” she says, shooting a glance at Eli, “I’m just super invested in beating this level in Candy Crush. Pretend I’m not here.”
“So,” Eli rushes to redirect Owen’s attention, only to realize he has no idea what to say. “Uh. How was your weekend?”
Smooth, Swann. Very smooth.
“Uh. A little rough?” Owen rubs at the back of his neck, his smile turned rueful. “I’m grounded for the next month, and my dad took my cell phone and changed the wifi password. I get those back in a week, though, as long as I don’t fuck up again.”
For a moment, all Eli can do is blink. “You were the one who got punched, though,” he finally blurts out. “Sucker punched, I mean. I’m the one who broke—”
“Hey, uh.” Owen steps in and puts a hand on his arm, gently steering him a couple of steps away from the stream of students leaving the school. “So, I talked to Austin when I took him to the hospital,” he says in a low murmur, stepping into Eli’s space in a way that’s deeply, deeply distracting. “I made sure he knows that if he tries to get you in trouble I’ll make sure he goes down too.”
“Oh.” Eli’s heart is racing. What does he even say to that? “Thanks?” Jesus Christ. “But, uh, what about . . . everybody saw what happened.”
“Everybody at the bonfire saw him start throwing punches,” Owen says grimly. “Austin’s always been an ass, but he’s gotten way worse the past couple months. Everyone’s pretty sick of his bullshit; it wasn’t hard to convince them to go with the ‘he tripped on a tree root and fell wrong’ story.” His smile is back, absolutely devastating when he’s standing this close, black eye and all. “Don’t worry, you’re in the clear.”
Ignoring the instinct to check that there aren’t literal cartoon hearts floating in the air around him, Eli shakes his head. “That’s hands-down the nicest thing anybody’s ever done for me. But hold up, if everybody’s on board, how’d you get grounded?”
“Uh, I came home with a shiner and the homophobic asshole who’s been hassling me had a broken arm. My dad figured I was the one who did it, and I just kinda let him.” He shrugs. “Whatever, it’s not like I really care what he thinks anyway.”
“Yeah.” Eli tightens his grip on his backpack straps to keep from reaching out. “Still. That sucks.”
“In a weird way, I think . . . I mean, he was pissed, but I think he was kinda relieved, too? Better to have his son punch another guy than kiss one, y’know? Hey, maybe you could teach me how you did that,” he adds, grinning again despite the subject matter. “Just in case.”
“Oh, uh. That was just. Judo.” Eli hears Charlie snort. “Self-defense class. My mom and I took one when we lived in Chicago.” He laughs awkwardly. “I didn’t even realize I still knew how to do that.”
“Hey. Hi. Sorry to interrupt,” Charlie says, thankfully stepping in before Eli completely loses control of himself. “Owen, I think someone’s here for you? They were trying to get your attention for like ten minutes.”
“There’s no way we’ve been standing here that long,” Eli protests.
“It’s just an expression, nerd. They drove off,” she says to Owen when he looks towards the parking lot. “Do you need a ride? Because neither of us have a car.” Eli shoots her a look. “What? I was gonna suggest he come to the diner with us instead!”
“I definitely would, but that’s my brother. My dad doesn’t trust me to go straight home after school, so Mike’s picking me up every day, along with . . . yup.” He shoots Eli an amused look. “You might wanna brace yourself.”
“ELI!” She’s wearing a puffy pink coat instead of a hotdog costume, but Isabelle is instantly recognizable by her enthusiasm alone. She skids to a halt in front of them, practically vibrating with energy. “Hey!”
“Owen.” Another figure approaches on her heels, with the dark-haired classic good looks marking him as a Blake. “Hey man, we’ve gotta get going.”
“Mike.” Isabelle tugs at her brother’s hand, eyes still locked on Eli. “Mike, can Eli take me?”
“Take you where?” Eli asks, at the same time that Michael raises his eyebrows and says, “Oh, Eli.”
“Right!” Owen says quickly. “We’ve gotta go, sorry to keep you waiting!”
“We’re doing a geocaching scavenger hunt for Brownies,” Isabelle carries on as if neither of her brothers have spoken, “but Ms. Dhar says we can’t go in the Preserve by ourselves, and Owen’s grounded and Mike has his research project.” She stares up at him with wide, pleading eyes that have to be practiced. “Would you take me instead?”
“Isabelle, I told you he works at the diner after school,” Owen says with a barely-suppressed smile.
“He’s got today off,” Charlie jumps in, so quickly that Eli barely has a chance to wonder how Owen knew that. “Geocaching, huh? You know,” she says, digging in her bag and pulling out what looks like a chunky cell phone in a sturdy, rubberized case, “my sister and I got really into that a few years ago. Do you know how to use a GPS unit?”
“I’ve just been using an app Ms. Dhar had us download.” Isabelle steps over to peer at the machine that Charlie’s holding out. “Woah, cool.”
“We can all go out together, I’ll show you how it works,” Charlie suggests, glancing up at Eli. “It’d be fun.”
“Sure.” Eli can’t get his feet under him, but it seems harmless enough. He looks back and forth between Owen and Michael. “If it’s cool with you? I mean, I don’t mind.”
“He knows self-defense,” Owen offers.
“I do have some work I was hoping to get done today.” Michael hesitates, visibly debating himself for a long moment before he sighs and pulls his phone from his back pocket. “Eli, could I get your number, just in case?”
“I’m gonna have my phone,” Isabelle glances up to protest.
“And Mom and Dad will kill me if anything happens to you on my watch, so I’m getting his number. And—sorry, I don’t think I got your name.”
“Charlie,” she says. “No problem.”
The two of them rattle off their numbers for Michael to type in, and the Blake brothers turn to go.
“Send me a selfie every half-hour, okay?” Michael tells Isabelle as they start to walk away. “I mean it.”
“I will, I will, see you later!” Isabelle turns her back on the two of them to beam up at Eli and Charlie, all but bouncing in place. “Let’s go hunting!”
The Adirondack wilderness is a national historic landmark, but it’s kinda hard to focus on its majesty when it’s now associated with two violent attacks. As Charlie teaches Isabelle how to use her GPS tracker, Eli feels a stab of gratitude that he’s out here with them. He may not have this whole werewolf thing entirely on lock, but he has a better chance than most of fending off another attack.
Not that there’s going to be one. The sun is high in a cloudless sky, painting the forest floor in dappled patterns, and the rogue only attacks at night.
Then again the rogue wasn’t supposed to attack at all until the next full moon.
“That’s so cool!” Isabelle enthuses, tugging on Eli’s hand like an excited balloon. She hasn’t let go of him once, not even as Charlie’s tech obviously cemented their new friendship. The closest she came was to take a selfie with the three of them to send to her brother, and even then she’d made Charlie press the button.
“We sure we’re going the right way?” Eli asks. It feels like they’ve been walking for hours, even if it’s only been long enough for a single selfie. Rose Lake’s township has long-since faded away, even from his own boosted hearing. Not that nature is all that quiet in comparison. He’s pretty sure he can hear squirrels having sex somewhere off to their right.
“We’re getting there,” Charlie says, not answering his question at all. That should have been a red flag, only the squirrels have gone from fucking to fighting and it’s distracting as hell.
It’s only when he smells the blood he realizes what Charlie’s done.
Keeping his voice casual he says, “I think I might know where we are.”
Isabelle looks up like he’s just spouted a sonnet. “Do you know the woods really, really well?”
“Some parts,” Eli says, shooting a glare at Charlie when Isabelle looks away.
Charlie doesn’t even try to deny it as she pokes through the underbrush. She’s about four feet away from a dark stain in the dirt. “Just figured we’d kill two birds with one stone.”
“We don’t kill birds,” Isabelle says like she’s two seconds away from throwing red paint.
“It’s an expression,” Eli says, reassuringly. “No killing, I promise.”
There’s a lot to be said for inflection. It can mean the difference between “Eli, stop being a goober” and “Eli, you’re grounded for a week”. The inflection of that um sounds an awful lot like, “Don’t freak out but we’re definitely in mortal peril”.
She turns, holding a digital watch with a smashed face, like whoever had been wearing it had hit the ground hard. But it’s not the watch that has Eli worried, it’s Charlie’s expression.
“I’m getting hungry,” Charlie says suddenly. “We should get back.”
“But we haven’t finished!” Isabelle protests.
“Yeah, but look at the time,” Charlie says, turning the watch.
The face is smashed clean through, the digits frozen at the hour it broke. Seven AM.
Alyssa smooths the map out, weighing a curling corner down with her cell phone. The couple in the room next door are having a fight about gas prices and Alyssa has to work to tune them out. Luckily the spell is a simple one: a few muttered words and her fingertips start to tingle as the spelled crystal does its job.
First, the path in. The crystal swings toward her as it always does, indicating the direction the rogue entered Rose Lake—or rather, the no-man’s-land where Rose Lake resides.
No pack, no borders, no magic. America is threaded with such areas—great swaths of land that no pack has claimed. It makes tracking rogues a lesson in frustration since she can only magically trace a wolf’s path through pack territory. Once they’re in a no-man’s-land, it’s down to her good old fashioned human tracking—credit card receipts, rumored animal attacks. Sometimes, though, a rogue will get sloppy and cross into an area like Rose Lake.
Rose Lake is an island among territories, skirted on all side by packs. It means Alyssa can track it in, and she’ll know exactly when it leaves.
Alyssa works her way around the surrounding territories clockwise, the crystal remaining static with each recitation. The rogue hasn’t left town then. It should probably disappoint her—in a territory they’d have a pack helping them track the bastard. But Alyssa hates pack diplomacy. If she doesn’t have to defer to an Alpha while they clean up this damn mess she’ll be thankful for it.
Her laptop chimes as she’s rolling up the map and she rolls her eyes at the time. Lord save her from small town medical examiners. Slowest paperwork she’s ever had to wait on.
She sits down and boots up one of the numerous throwaway email accounts she uses for her spyware backchannels.
The report is sloppy and lazy—the examiner obviously agrees with the authorities on the “wild animal” front. They haven’t even bothered guessing at a species, which is the height of amateur hour. Alyssa is about to chalk the report up to a giant waste of time when she gets to the time of death and freezes.
I’ll check out the scene, Charlie’s text had said. Alyssa swears and grabs for her phone, booting up her GPS tracker before switching over to text. Even if the medical examiner fucked up—no, she can’t risk it.
Rogue attacked after sunup, she types one-handed as she grabs for her Glock. Get out of the woods.
Goddammit. She’d been wondering how the rogue had gone so moon mad so fast. She hadn’t stopped to think maybe that it wasn’t mad at all. That it was killing deliberately.
They weren’t just dealing with a rogue werewolf. They were hunting a murderer.
“Okay . . .” The tip of Isabelle’s tongue pokes out where it’s pressed against her front teeth, her forehead scrunched in concentration as she enters the coordinates that Charlie’s pulled up on her phone. “There. So I’ve set the waypoint, and now I just . . .” She pokes at the screen a few more times.
“Doin’ great.” Charlie’s voice is encouraging, but she looks as nervous as Eli feels. “So which way do we go?”
“The house is . . .” Isabelle turns slowly in place, eyes still locked on the GPS unit in her hand, until she finally lifts her head and points triumphantly. “Half a mile that way!”
“Superb, you funky little Girl Scout!” Charlie takes the unit from Isabelle and gives her a high five. “Let’s get moving. Did you hear that, Eli?” Her eyes lock on his, a little too wide above her encouraging smile. “Just half a mile from the house.”
“That’s . . . great.” Half a mile. Fuck. “Let’s get going.”
Charlie keeps up a steady stream of chatter as they start to walk—it isn’t hard, as Isabelle proves more than willing to go on at length about almost anything once you get her going—and Eli does his best to just let it wash over him. He channels all of his focus, trying to open up his senses and stretch them as far as they can go. Smell is a lost cause with so much to filter through, but hearing is a little bit easier. High-up branches creaking in the wind. The fluttering snap of bird wings. Chattering squirrels. What sounds like a few mid-sized animals making their way through the crunch of fallen leaves.
And then, at the very edge of his perception, what sounds like something bigger moving through the underbrush. The crack of a thick branch snapping under heavy weight. What his suddenly adrenaline-soaked brain is certain is a deep, guttural snarl.
“Hey Isabelle.” She looks up at him quizzically, cutting off whatever she was saying mid-sentence, and he summons up his most challenging smile. “I bet you a super sundae you can’t beat me back to your house.”
“Oh yeah?” There’s a calculating glint in her eyes, and he focuses on that to keep from looking over at Charlie who’s gone tense beside him. “With extra cherries?”
“And extra whipped cream.”
“You’re on!” she says, dropping his hand and immediately bursting into a sprint over the uneven ground. “I want two kinds of ice cream!” she calls back over her shoulder.
“Go,” Eli says, and that’s all the prompting Charlie needs before she starts running as well.
Eli’s run from a lot of things in his life, but he’s never exactly been an athlete. Now, though, his legs and his lungs feel strong, his heart rate barely picking up as he practically flies across the forest floor. There’s a dizzying freedom to it, a stark contrast to the way running always felt before, and he makes a mental note to take the time to enjoy it when he isn’t running for his life from a dangerous monster.
Ahead, Charlie has caught up with Isabelle and is carefully keeping pace, and it would be easy for Eli to do the same, easy to overtake them completely. Instead he hangs back, still trying to listen. He still doesn’t know what he’s doing, but if the rogue is following them he wants to make sure it has to go through him first.
Fuck, that’s stupid. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Charlie, if we make it out of this alive I’m gonna kill you.
He’s still about a dozen yards back when there’s a loud groaning sound from up ahead where the girls are, and Eli watches as the forest floor gives way beneath them and they’re both just suddenly—
Eli only just manages to skid to a stop at the edge of the ten-foot-wide hole that’s opened up in the ground, coughing against the cloud of dust and leaves.
“Isabelle?” he calls, heart in his throat. “Charlie? Are you both okay?”
“Ow.” Isabelle’s voice sounds more annoyed than pained, and Eli sinks down to the ground before his knees give out in relief. “That sucked.”
“We’re okay.” Charlie also sounds winded but otherwise steady. “What the hell, though?” A pause, then: “Shit, I’m probably not supposed to curse in front of you. Fuck!”
Eli’s laughing as he fumbles his phone from his back pocket and turns on the flashlight function. Charlie and Isabelle are getting to their feet, dirt-streaked and rumpled, but steady. The hole isn’t as deep as he’d feared—just a little over ten feet from the look of it—but still too deep for him to reach them.
“Okay, uh.” Eli glances around. “Maybe there’s like . . . a tree branch? Or something? I might be able to pull you guys up.”
“Actually,” Isabelle says, stepping over to one of the walls of what seems to be the small cave they’ve fallen into, “you might not have to.”
“I admire your confidence, girl, but these walls don’t exactly look climbable.” Charlie cranes her neck back to peer up at Eli. “See if you can find something we can grab.”
Eli gets to his feet and starts to look around. He thinks he might be able to snap a branch off one of the smaller trees if he has to. He’s giving one a testing pull when something catches his attention.
Something big is moving through the forest—he can hear it again, closer this time, and headed their way. Logic would dictate that there’s no reason to believe that it’s the rogue. There are lots of animals in these woods. It could just as easily be a bear, or a deer, or maybe even a moose.
But Eli knows. He doesn’t know how, exactly, but he knows. He can feel it, somehow.
The rogue is coming.
“Eli?” Charlie has her phone out, shining the flashlight around to make sure more rubble wasn’t about to collapse on top of them. She knows it’s been all of thirty seconds, but it already feels like they’ve been stuck down here for hours. “Oi, make a noise so I know you’re still up there, would you?”
“Hey.” Eli’s silhouette appears at the top of the hole again, backlit by the midafternoon sun. “I couldn’t find anything. But, um. Charlie, I think our friend is close.”
“Close.” Shit shit shit. They came out here straight after school, she isn’t even packing a can of mace right now. “Are you sure?”
“I can hear him. So. I’m gonna go . . . see if he’ll help. You two just stay here, okay?”
“Woah, hold on.” Charlie feels panic starting to rise up inside her and tries to force it down. “I don’t know if we should be splitting up.”
“Eli?” Isabelle sounds nervous now, and moves back to stand beside Charlie. “You’re leaving?”
“I’ll be back. I promise,” he says fiercely. “It’s gonna be okay.”
He’s gone before either of them can say another word, the sound of his footsteps fading quickly into the distance. Charlie drops into a crouch and pulls off her backpack, digging through it to look for anything that she could repurpose into some sort of weapon. A mechanical pencil is the best she has, unless she can manage to bore the rogue to death by reading it her copy of The Scarlet Letter.
That’s a solid plan B, anyway.
“Charlie.” Isabelle tugs on her sleeve, looking uncertain. “Are you freaking out?”
“I’m good, kiddo. Just . . .” Lie, lie, lie. “I’m not wild about small spaces. That’s all.”
Whatever Isabelle was about to say is cut off by a sound above them: heavy footsteps and heavier breathing, snapping twigs and a snuffling growl. Her eyes go wide and afraid, and seeing that, Charlie shoves down her own fear as she lifts a finger to her lips, then covers her own mouth with one hand. Isabelle follows suit, staring up towards the bare treetops and the blue sky overhead, nearly vibrating with tension.
Charlie braces herself, preparing for a fight. The rogue has to know they’re here by now, has to have caught their scent. Might even already know they’re trapped. She doesn’t know how she’s going to protect Isabelle if it comes down here, but damn it, she’s ready to die trying. Maybe she can give it a bloody nose before it rips her apart.
A howl cuts through the air, echoing from somewhere to the south of them. And then, almost directly above them, an answering howl.
Heavy, thudding footfalls as the creature above them bounds away.
Charlie can’t wrap her head around it. The two of them are sitting ducks, easy prey. A werewolf as far gone as the rogue should be running on pure instinct and bloodlust.
A werewolf as far gone as the rogue shouldn’t be shifting during the day.
“Was that . . . a wolf?” Isabelle squeaks out, and Charlie has to take several deep breaths before she can muster up an answer.
“Probably just a dog.” It’s bullshit, but Isabelle’s what, eight? Charlie can sell this. “Sometimes people dump strays in the woods and they go feral.”
“So.” Isabelle stares up at her, eyebrows raised. “Basically a wolf.”
Charlie laughs. “Whatever it was, it’s gone now.” She listens carefully, but there’s no hint that the rogue is doubling back. “That was kinda scary though, huh?”
“Yeah.” Isabelle lets out a shaky laugh of her own. “Wait’ll Ms. Dhar hears about this.”
“Maybe you’ll get a bonus Wilderness Survival badge,” Charlie grins.
“Do you think Eli is okay?” Isabelle asks quietly.
“I wouldn’t worry about him.” Charlie looks up again, trying to pretend she believes what she’s saying. “I’m sure he’s fine.”
Eli’s not fine. He’s never been less fine, unless you count the last time he’d been hunted through the underbrush by a monster. He can’t even bring himself to freak out about the damn howl that’d crawled up out of his throat like barbed wire. His freak-o-meter is tapped.
His running isn’t so effortless anymore—not with something just as fast as he is on his tail. The trees whip by like the world’s in fast forward, but he’s still at a disadvantage. He only has two legs; the rogue has four.
His only hope is to make it to civilization before the rogue catches him, but . . . no, not an option. He’s not leading this bastard to people, not when it’s already killed at least once. Eli won’t be responsible for more bloodshed.
Well, other than his own. Because fuck, he’s flagging. He’s flagging and he can practically smell the foul breath of the monster on his heels.
He should stop. Turn and fight while he still has the breath to do so. If he’s gonna go down, he’ll at least make sure it’s not worth the rogue’s while to double back for the girls. If he can just—
The ground falls away under his feet like it wants nothing to do with him. For a full half-second, Eli hangs in the air like a cartoon character before gravity joins the party and he falls.
It’s a gorge, he realises too late. A great big split in the earth a good thirty feet across and . . . a lot more than that down. Which is why it’s a lucky thing his flailing hands find a branch, even if the rest of him violently slams into the fallen log it’s attached to.
The breath isn’t so much punched out of him as taken out with a sledgehammer. It’s all he can do to keep his grip on the branch, the only thing between him and an . . . unpleasant drop. Then there’s a growl above him, and Eli swivels as best he can.
The rogue is no less monstrous in daylight. If anything it’s more, with Eli’s new senses bringing it to him in high definition and surround sound. The thing is straight out of a monster movie: bipedal, with hulking shoulders and huge, claw-tipped hands. Its fur is rust-colored, dark with red undertones when it shifts in the breeze. The dark eyes watching him are the most human thing about it. Its teeth, though . . . Eli can’t help but feel like he ought to be wearing a red cloak.
But no. He’s not some helpless babe in the woods. Not this time.
Eli grits his teeth and yanks himself up onto the fallen log. It groans beneath his weight, almost rotted through, but he’s able to gain his feet without it giving way.
He’s lucky. So lucky. Two feet to the right and he would have been a smear on the rocks below. Instead, he’s balanced precariously on rotting wood that’s wedged diagonally across a perilous drop, facing off against a murderous werewolf.
Y’know what? He takes back the ‘lucky’ part.
The rogue snarls, falling onto all fours, and Eli realises it’s gauging the distance to the fallen log. It’s a ten foot drop, an easy leap for a werewolf—or it would be if the log were sturdy.
“Don’t!” Eli yells, feeling stupid until he sees the rogue pause. It can understand him, then. Eli swallows harshly as the log sways under him. “It won’t hold both of us.”
The rogue actually appears to consider this, and for a horrifying moment Eli worries it’s going to give up on him and loop back around for the girls.
Then the bastard jumps.
The log shudders almost as violently as Eli’s nerves, but it doesn’t give way. A second later, he almost wishes it would. The rogue bears down on him like a nightmare, and Eli can’t back up fast enough, can’t block out the low growl, or the rancid breath, or the sharp woodsy smell that hits him behind his tongue—
Then there’s a loud crack, and Eli feels the snarl this time. Because it’s not the rogue. It’s him.
Eli doesn’t think. He jumps.
The cave isn’t a cave so much as a tunnel. Charlie spends a few minutes scrutinizing the darkness to either side of them before resolving that “up” is their best course of action. She’s seen too many horror movies to try cave diving with an eight-year-old.
“Maybe we can climb up,” Charlie says, eyeing the wall. “Here, I’ll give you a leg up.”
When she turns around, it’s to find Isabelle scrutinizing the wall like an archaeologist at the dig of a lifetime. She’s even got her phone out, using it as a flashlight.
“Little help here,” Charlie says.
Isabelle doesn’t even turn around. “I am helping.” Then: “Ah hah!”
Charlie groans. “You’re killing me here, kiddo.”
“I’m saving you,” Isabelle says proudly, wiping dust from the tunnel wall.
Charlie rolls her eyes. “I don’t think—”
And then she sees it. Damn, the archaeology dig hadn’t been that far off. There’s a symbol, a vertical line intersected by another diagonal line, chiseled out of the rock wall.
“What is that?”
Isabelle practically beams. “Our way out,” she says, pointing into the darkness. “We need to go that way.”
The world record for the standing long jump is just over twelve feet. By his best guess, Eli’s about twenty feet away from the far side of the gorge.
Still. Death-by-splatter has got to be a better way to go than being mauled to death by a literal monster.
A loud, cracking groan splits the air as he pushes off, the sound of the makeshift bridge beneath them finally giving way. Heat rakes across the back of his calf as the rogue catches him with a claw, but it’s too slow to catch him fully, and for a long, breathless moment, Eli is soaring through the air, weightless as he waits for gravity to reassert itself.
He hopes the gorge goes down far enough for the end to be quick. He hopes his body isn’t too messed up.
I’m sorry, Mom. I’m so sorry. I wish—
The ground is rushing towards him too soon, and it takes him a heartbeat to realize it’s because he’s about to collide with the side of the gorge, not the bottom. Then he hits, another sledgehammer to his lungs, but even as his head spins his hands are clawing at the lip of the gorge, digging in, scrambling for purchase. Eli’s barely even aware of what he’s doing as his body seems to take over, arms hauling him up over the edge as his toes dig in for leverage, sending more dirt and rubble clattering down into the darkness below.
On his hands and knees on solid ground once again, fighting panic at how very close he was to not just one but two different yet equally grisly deaths, the sight of his own furred, claw-tipped hands barely registers. A snarling growl rings out, drawing his attention. Apparently the rogue had made it back to solid ground instead of being dropped into the abyss as Eli had dimly hoped it might be.
He pushes himself to his feet to face it across the yawning span of the gorge between them. Eli feels oddly distant from his own body, as though he’s merely a passenger along for the ride. The rogue paces back and forth as he watches, his thoughts too fuzzy to bother with more than the basics.
The other wolf howls again, head thrown back as it lets out its call, then crouches down, hind legs as tense as coiled springs as it prepares to jump. Eli bares his teeth in challenge, ready for a fight now, ready to—
The gunshot comes from almost on top of him, and Eli drops to the ground, instinctively trying to make himself a smaller target. The rogue, on the other hand, lets out a howling cry as it clutches at its blood-soaked shoulder. Off to Eli’s right there’s the sound of a rifle cartridge being ejected, and then an answering scream—fully human, furious, and defiant.
“YEAH THAT’S RIGHT, FUCK OFF!” Alyssa bellows as the rogue turns to run, still impossibly fast even with only three good legs.
Eli’s legs are weak with relief, but he pushes himself to his feet. Alyssa glances over at him, her expression still fierce for a moment before her eyes go wide and horrified.
Her rifle swings around to train on him, and Eli’s heart stops.
“Shit.” Alyssa’s hands are unsteady as she ejects another cartridge. “Eli, I’m sorry.”
She’s going to shoot him. He can see it in the way she settles her rifle more firmly against her shoulder, the way her left hand tightens to steady her aim. His heart starts beating triple-time and he raises his hands in the universal gesture of let’s try to be reasonable people who don’t murder each other here.
His hands, still tipped with claws, still covered in dirt-streaked gray fur that continues up his arms.
. . . Shit, indeed.
“I’ll make it—holy hell!”
She drops the gun down to her side, suddenly much taller. No, wait. Eli is shorter. He looks at his hands again, sees skin and scraped fingers and dirt caked under his short, human fingernails. Relief washes through him. And then he falls.
“Woah there, you’re already scuffed up enough.” Alyssa has one arm wrapped around him, holding him up. “Let’s not have any more tumbles today, yeah?”
“You’re strong,” Eli mumbles. He’s so tired, and talking is hard.
“Seems like I’m not the only one.” She hitches him a little higher and flicks the safety on her rifle into place with her free hand before slinging it onto her back. “I almost shot you,” she says, her voice barely steadier than his.
“I noticed.” He digs deep and finds the strength to take on some of his own weight. “Glad you didn’t.”
“Glad you shifted back when you did. Fuck, kid.” She laughs, starting to lead him slowly away from the gorge. “Good instincts.”
Eli smiles weakly. “Thanks. Shit. Charlie and Isabelle, they’re—”
“At the diner.” She grins just as weakly back at him. “Well, Charlie is, according to her text. She dropped Isabelle off at home and she’s meeting us there. They’re okay.”
“Thank God. I really didn’t know what I was gonna do about it if they weren’t.” He limps along in silence for another few steps. “Can I ask you something?”
“I’d say you earned it, sure. Shoot.” She winces. “Uh. Sorry.”
He laughs at that, surprising them both. “Oh, shit. Fuck, that hurts. I think I bruised some ribs.” He takes as deep a breath as he dares. “How did I do that? It’s not even dark yet, and I shifted. And then I shifted back. I thought you said I was screwed if I shifted too soon. How—”
“Eli,” Alyssa says firmly, cutting him off. “Those are all really good, really fair questions. And I promise, we’re . . . we’re gonna figure out the answers.”
Meaning she doesn’t know, either. Cool. Cool cool cool.
“Cool,” he mutters. And then, after a moment, “Seriously, thanks. For not shooting me, and for the other. Shooting thing. That you did do?” He wobbles on his feet.
“Hey, no sweat. What I’m here for, right? Sort of.” Her grip tightens, and she takes more of his weight back on herself. “We’re almost back to where I parked; just a little bit farther, then we’ll get you back home. Lucky for you I keep a first aid kit and a spare change of clothes in the trunk—you look like you went ten rounds with a shredder.”
“Um.” He glances at her, then down at himself, and she shoots him a wry smile.
“I know, we’re not exactly the same size, but trust me—leggings and a sweatshirt are gonna be an improvement.”
“Okay.” He takes another careful breath, this one already deeper than the last. “I trust you.”
Another text from Charlie pops up on Alyssa’s phone when they’re halfway back to the diner. Alyssa immediately calls her sister back, setting the call on speakerphone so that she can hear for herself that Eli is alive and more-or-less well.
“We’re almost there. Let us know if it’s busy so we can go in through the—Eli, is there a back door? Fuck it, let’s just go in that way regardless. Eli here’s got a bit of a wardrobe situation going on.”
He can’t even blame Charlie for the way she doubles over laughing when she sees him, and just stands there for a full minute to let her take in the whole picture. Alyssa was right about his clothes being a lost cause, torn to shreds by the combination of falls, claws, and his supernatural transformation. The too-small galaxy-print leggings and bright pink hoodie are an improvement in terms of public decency laws, but not much else.
By the time he’s showered and scrubbed himself clean again, two things have happened: all of his assorted cuts and scrapes have almost entirely healed over, and the dinner rush has given way to the usual early-evening lull. He pauses long enough to grab the heaping plate of food his mom hands him, giving her a grateful smile, and slides into the booth where Charlie and Alyssa are waiting.
“Wow.” Eli glances between the two of them on the other side of the table. “Deja vu, huh?”
“Shut up and eat before you pass out,” Charlie tells him. “You burned an unbelievable amount of energy today with zero prep; you need to refuel.”
Eli doesn’t argue, just starts digging in. She’s right, he’s starving. He’s halfway through his double-decker burger and mountain of fries before he pauses and looks at them again.
“So.” He snags the ketchup bottle and squirts some out onto his plate. “I was thinking about it when I was in the shower.”
“Gross,” Charlie says automatically. There’s a muffled thump from under the table and then, “Ow! It was a joke.”
“Ignore her,” Alyssa says. “What were you thinking about?”
“I can’t go to Harford yet. Look,” he pushes on when they both open their mouths to argue. “We can talk about the rest of it, come up with a game plan, whatever. But I already talked to my mom about this.” Eli glances over at her, smiling back at her encouraging wink. “I can’t leave until we deal with this rogue. I won’t.”
“Eli . . .” Charlie looks to her sister, taking uncharacteristic care in choosing her words. “There are a lot of reasons that might not be a great idea.”
“I get that. But . . .” He picks up a french fry. Puts it back down. “There’s a lot of shitty, scary stuff in the world, and most of it—you know, I can’t really do anything about it.” His eyes dart over to his mom again. “I can do something about this, though. And as long as I can, I’m not gonna run away.”
“Wow. That’s noble as hell.” Charlie leans back against the bench’s vinyl-covered padding. “Stupid, but noble.”
Eli’s about to deliver what would be, frankly, a devastatingly witty response the likes of which the world has never known, but he’s distracted by the buzz of his phone in his pocket. He fishes it out, wondering who could possibly be texting him when almost everyone he knows is here, and sees . . . he sees . . .
Thanks again for taking Isabelle out today, she said she had a lot of fun. This is Owen btw.
No problem! She said she had fun?
“Hey Charlie, how did you and Isabelle get out, anyway?” he asks, astonished he hadn’t even thought of that until now, and looks up to see Charlie grinning knowingly at him. “What?”
“Look at that smile. Who ya texting, Eli?” He feels his face warming up, and she cackles. “Maybe staying in town isn’t totally noble after all, eh?”
“Would you just answer the question?”
His phone buzzes again:
She’s totally crazy about you and Charlie. I owe you big.
“—how to navigate. Eli. ELI.” His head shoots up again and Charlie gives him a look caught somewhere between fondness and irritation. “I said, there’s a whole system of caves running under this section of the park. The Blake family has lived here forever, and they’ve got nearly all of it marked with directional symbols and shit so you can find your way out. Isabelle said her dad taught them all how to navigate through it when they were old enough to start going out by themselves.”
“Charlie, let’s go to the counter and order some milkshakes.” Alyssa half-shoves her sister out of the booth ahead of her and gives Eli a pointed look. “Five minute break for you to get the teenage flirtation out of your system, then back to business.”
Eli doesn’t bother arguing, just immediately turns back to his phone. He’s texting with Owen Blake. They’re texting each other. Texting is a thing they do now.
You don’t owe me anything, it was fun. I thought your dad took your phone, though?
He did! But Mike felt bad for me and slipped me a prepaid one he picked up at the grocery store. Brothers: 1, Dad: 0!
Eli knows he must have a totally goofy grin on his face, but he doesn’t care. He’s halfway through typing out a congratulatory reply when another text pops up.
Anyway, you’re wrong: I totally owe you. Maybe I could buy you dinner this weekend?
Eli loses a good chunk of his allotted time just . . . staring at the screen.
Dinner with Owen.
Dinner with Owen, at Owen’s invitation, for which Owen wants to pay. Almost like a . . . like a . . .
Dinner sounds great, yeah, he finally manages to type out after no fewer than four separate drafts. Good. Casual. Aren’t you pretty much grounded until you graduate, though?
I’ve snuck out of the house before. I can do it again for a good cause ;)
“All right, bucko, time’s up.” This time Charlie snatches the phone out of his hand before he can stop her, and her eyebrows immediately shoot up. “A winky face? My dude, you are totally in there.”
“Drink up,” Alyssa says, setting a huge milkshake down in front of him. “Charlie, stop hogging, let me see!”
The two of them start peering at the screen between them, chattering about . . . Eli doesn’t know. The texts, he’d guess, but he’s so caught up in his own thoughts that he barely even hears. His heart is beating so hard he can feel it in his fingertips. Is it really possible that Owen just asked him out?
He has a full-body flashback to the night of the bonfire, sitting on a log next to Owen. His smile with the firelight flickering over it. The warmth of Owen’s side pressed against his. The way the scent of his cologne had made Eli’s head spin. He can practically smell it again now, sharp and woodsy and—
“Hey.” A hand settles over his on top of the table and Eli nearly jumps out of his skin. Charlie draws back immediately, but now she and Alyssa are both frowning at him in open concern. “Hey, you okay? You went from cloud nine to totally freaked out in like half a second.”
“On the body, and . . . and then today, at the gorge.” His eyes flicker around the diner, suddenly intensely aware of their public setting. “There was a smell. Cologne.”
“Okay,” Alyssa says slowly, her frown deepening. “Well, that could be a clue. Do you think you’d know it if you smelled it again?”
“I already did.” Eli swallows hard. “Um. I think Owen might be trying to kill me.”
The diner is bustling in a way that makes his hackles rise even if he’s not inside, instincts still on high alert from the chase earlier. The chase and the shooting. His shoulder still hurts like a bitch even with the accelerated healing.
It’s got nothing on the sour feeling in his gut though.
Because it’s Eli. After all this searching, he’d been right under his goddamn nose the whole time. Right under his nose in the worst way. Of course. Of course it’s Eli.
Shit just got complicated.
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