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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