Categories
Setting Fire

Setting Fire 04: Buck

“She lives in the freaking White House!” exclaimed Lexi as the beat-up old pickup truck rounded the final curve of the Berkshire Estate’s obnoxiously long driveway. Her dad parked under a columned awning where, Lexi assumed, a valet was supposed to jump up and whisk vehicles out of sight.

“It’s not the White House,” he grunted, but even he was leaning over and giving the house a dubious frown. The Georgian home was one of the many buildings in Silent Pines that were protected as heritage sites by the Historical Society. In every history class that Lexi had ever shared with Margrit, the girl never failed to talk about her dumb mansion and boast about her connection with the founding families of the town. The Polks were a founding family too, but Lexi never heard anyone bringing that up.

Probably because the Berkshires owned practically everything in Silent Pines.

Lexi slid lower in her seat. “Why couldn’t Knucker be here? He’s the one that drove her car.”

Jacob let out a restrained hiss of air and gave his only child a look.

“He’s got dinner with his Nana. Believe me, the two of you will be doing anything that girl asks until that damn party of hers is over and done with. Because if that dragon she calls her mother calls me up one more time threatening a lawsuit, I’m going to let George haul your ass to jail and leave you there until you’re eighteen. Got it?”

Her mouth pursed like she’d bitten into a lemon. Lexi almost blurted out that going to jail would be better—and safer—than this, but she had a feeling that this time it wasn’t an idle threat. She nodded instead.

A sharp rap on the window made her jolt in her seat. Margrit peered in through the dirty glass, giving them one of her dumb fake smiles. Lexi shoved open the door so fast she nearly hit the girl with it, a little disappointed when Margrit hopped out of the way.

“Evening Mr. Ryan. You’re right on time. I hope it wasn’t too much trouble driving Lexi all the way across town. I’m afraid my car is still at the shop getting detailed.” When Lexi’s dad wasn’t looking, Margrit squinted sideways at Lexi with a sneer.

“Not a problem. Let Mrs. Berkshire know I appreciate how obliging she’s been.” Oh, nope. He’d seen that. That subtle bite in his tone was typically reserved for those really obnoxious customers at the shop—and was making Lexi really curious as to what exactly Mrs. Berkshire had said on the phone.

He didn’t stick around long enough for her to find out. After reminding Lexi when he’d be there to pick her up, he gave the girls a curt goodbye. Margrit waved him off until the truck was out of sight.

It was like a switch flipped the moment she knew Lexi’s dad was gone. With her arms splayed straight down at her sides, almost like one of those creepy mannequins in a horror film, Margrit slowly turned on the balls of her feet towards her prey. Her glossy, painted smile was so perfect that a sudden zing of terror struck Lexi. She almost bolted to chase her dad down the street, but her feet were glued in place.

“I’m almost sad the troll couldn’t make it too. We’re going to have so much fun tonight.” Margrit beckoned Lexi toward the house. “Follow me, servant.”

Mute and more than a little wary, Lexi followed Margrit inside.

It was like stepping onto another planet. The first thing she saw was a giant staircase that looked even wider than Lexi’s house. As a matter of fact, Lexi’s whole house and then some could have fit snugly in that front room. She found herself spinning in a circle trying to take it all in.

“Ahem,” Margrit cleared her throat. The other girl seemed to enjoy Lexi’s staring; Lexi quickly wiped the bewildered look off her face and scowled.

“What did you want me to do here?” she asked, though her real question was more along the lines of How are you going to kill me today?

“This way.” Margrit led her into another room—though the only way Lexi could tell was by the change from white marble floor to parquet wood tile—that might’ve seemed like a normal living room, had it not been absolutely huge. There were not just one, but three sectional sets. Who needed that many couches?!

“I should thank you, really. Because I so valiantly lent my car to help save a poor soul’s life, Mother is letting me take the lead in organizing one of her very important charity events. Soon this parlor will be transformed into a beautiful ballroom. We’re even getting the antique chandelier out of storage.”

Lexi didn’t register half of what she was saying, finding herself way more transfixed by a freaking bear. An actual real-life bear, standing up on its hind legs and flashing its pearly white teeth. When she reached out to touch it, she found the fur coarse and a little stiff. Something like this definitely could’ve taken a whole chunk out of her shoulder and then some. The shape was different, though. This thing wouldn’t have been able to chase her through the woods so deftly with its big round body.

“Oh my god, could you stop bonding with your boyfriend for two minutes? This is actually important!” Margrit shouted. When Lexi spun back around, she found Margrit holding a bucket of cleaning supplies and an apron. “As I was saying, it all needs to be dusted and cleaned before the movers can pack and set everything up.”

“What’s the apron for?” Lexi wanted to know.

“The apron is for fun.”

Fun for who? wondered Lexi, just as the apron hit her in the face. The bucket of supplies was shoved unceremoniously into her hands.

“After that, you’re going to wash and fold all of the party linens. Most of them will be fine in the machine.” Margrit wrinkled her nose. “Although I am not sure you’ve ever actually used a washing machine before, judging by those clothes.”

“I’ve done laundry before,” muttered Lexi.

“Of course you have,” Margrit chimed sweetly. “Hop to it, then.”

As soon as Margrit was out of sight, Lexi tossed the apron across the room. To be fair, it could have been worse. Lexi had been torturing herself imagining all the different ways Margrit was going make her life a living hell. Dusting a ginormous room and doing some laundry was pretty low on the list. Even better, Margrit wasn’t going to be on her heels being snotty the whole time.

Lexi pulled a feather duster out of the supply bucket and got to work. She probably spent more time playing with the thing than she did actually dusting, though. As she made her way around the room, she was finding precious little actual grime but lots of interesting little trinkets. From shined bronze bowls to crystal vases, little fancy eggs with secret compartments, letter openers fashioned like ceremonial knives used for human sacrifice… There were even huge scowling paintings of the Berkshires. One in particular looked a lot like Margrit, right down to the curly red hair, and Lexi might’ve assumed it was her if not for a little note card in the corner that read Georgia.

Lexi was digging through a jar filled with smooth pebbles and old coins when she nearly had a heart attack.

“BOO!”

A thick curtain on the wall moved, and a demon with the ugliest face Lexi had ever seen jumped out and grabbed her by the arm. She shrieked, jerking backwards right into a table. Lexi caught the large marbled blue vase before it went tumbling, but unfortunately she missed its smaller companion. The metal urn rolled off the table and crashed to the floor. Dust spilled everywhere.

“Oh no, not Great-Grandpa again,” lamented the demon.

It took Lexi a second to realize the scary face was actually a mask on a little girl. When she pulled it off, there was a mess of curly red hair and a tiny wide-eyed face grimacing at the pile of dust on the floor. She couldn’t be more than five or six, Lexi reckoned, but she currently had more pressing issues.

Oh shit. That was a person’s ashes? Who kept their dead ancestors in jars?!

“Crap! Fuck! Damn!” exclaimed Lexi, scrambling for her bucket of supplies and digging around for something she could use to scoop up Great-Grandpa. She found a tiny dustpan and a little broom at the bottom of the bucket.

The little girl was no help at all. She just stood there rocking on her heels.

“It’s okay, he always ends up on the floor. Scotty says as long as you make sure his teeth get back in there, no one will notice.”

Scotty must’ve been Scott Berkshire, Margrit’s older brother. Which meant this midget must’ve been her little sister. Lexi hadn’t known Margrit even had a sister.

“You can’t tell anybody,” Lexi told the girl, getting as much of Great-Grandpa into the urn as she could. She tried not to shudder and think too much about all the chunky solid bits that clanked against the urn’s sides when she dumped the ashes back into it. Gross. There was still a little bit of him on the carpet, but the broom couldn’t get it up. A dust-buster was the next thing out of the bucket. “Especially not Margrit!”

“Whacha gonna give me?”

“What?”

“Whacha gonna give me to keep quiet! Margie gives me chocolate truffles and Scotty gives me dollars.”

Lexi had to think about this. First of all, Margie? Were she not in loads of trouble already, that would’ve been the highlight of her day. Second, Lexi didn’t exactly have much to give. It’s not like she carried candy around to bribe annoying little kids with, and the few bucks she had in her pocket were her lunch money for the next week.

“Look, I don’t ha—”

“MARG—”

Lexi grabbed the kid and covered her mouth with her hand, waiting with bated breath for Margrit’s heeled footsteps to echo through the house. When nothing but silence followed, Lexi let out a sigh. Behind her palm, the monster giggled.

“Okay, okay. Here.” Releasing the kid, Lexi dug into her front pocket to pull out her money. She intended to only hand over a dollar, but the second she had cash in hand, the girl snatched the whole folded wad and took off running out of the room.

No wonder the Berkshires were rich. They were a bunch of blackmailing thieves.

Once the evidence of Great-Grandpa’s fall was erased, Lexi figured it was best to seclude herself in the laundry room. Thanks to Margrit’s complete lack of a tour, she had to stumble through a hundred doors before she found the one housing the laundry. Unlike the dank corner in her own basement where the washer and dryer made their home, the Berkshires practically had an entire laundromat. Lexi supposed when you had a house big enough to hold two thousand families, you needed a professional facility for washing their clothes, too.

After getting the first cycle in the wash, Lexi made herself comfortable on top of the machine with the book Mr. Anderson gave her. There wasn’t much else to do unless she wanted to go defile more of Margrit’s cremated ancestors.

She was a little dubious about it for the first few pages; classic books were more a Knucker thing. Though she liked to read, it was usually in the form of comic books, manga, sci-fi, and fantasy—basically anything with cool pictures or zombies. Call of the Wild was about a dog named Buck, who so far was having a pretty shit life, and somehow Lexi found herself relating to Buck and all the crap he had to deal with. Before she knew it, she was sucked in.

A while later, Lexi was right in the middle of a sled-dog fight to the death and grimacing. This book was kind of brutal. Make it about teenage girls and Lexi figured it’d be pretty realistic.

“You’re here to do chores, not get off with my appliances,” commented Margrit, causing Lexi to start and jump off the washer. Margrit snatched the book from her hands in the process, giving the cover and insert a surprised appraisal. “This is expensive, where did you get this? Your dad isn’t going to pleased finding out you’re a thief, too.”

That was hilarious, considering Margrit’s little sister had just stolen Lexi’s lunch money. Lexi huffed, lunging forward to snatch the book back.

“Mr. Anderson let me borrow it. Give it back!”

Margrit stepped backwards, holding it aloft and just behind her.

“Does he know your track record with expensive things? I’d be surprised if he gets this back in one piece.”

Lexi’s face turned a bit red, but she made another grab for the book. Shoving Margrit’s dumb head in the dryer seemed like a good idea right about then. “How many times do I have to say I’m sorry? It’s not like I WANTED to almost die in your stupid car!”

Margrit continued to back up and dodge, finally tossing the book behind Lexi, where it landed safely and unharmed on top of the dryer. She looked smug, pressing her hands against the doorway as she hovered.

“Maybe when you’re actually sorry for being such a horrible waste of everyone’s time and energy, I might grace you with my forgiveness. But that would require you to get your head out of Knucker Polk’s ass long enough to, I don’t know, do something other than brood and stare moodily into the abyss.”

For a split second, everything went a bright, bright red. Her strangled silence must’ve been the reply Margrit was after because Lexi could hear the girl laughing as she left down the hall.

Why did Margrit always have to be such a bitch about everything? Who gave her the right to act like she was the Queen of Silent Pines? Lexi hissed under her breath, pressing the heels of her palms to her temples where her pulse was beating so hard she could feel it throbbing against her skull. What did Lexi ever do to earn this much shit from one girl? She bet the girl wouldn’t be so snarky all the time if she punched Margrit right in her freckled nose. Or pulled her arms until they made that satisfying crunching pop noise when they got jerked out of the sockets. She sure wouldn’t be able to talk if Lexi sank her teeth into Margrit’s throat. Lexi could even taste the iron tang of her blood—

Alarm rushed through her, twisting her gut into knots when she realized she was tasting actual blood. Lexi wiped her hand across her mouth quickly, finding only the tiniest bit of red. The crazy part was when something sharp nicked her palm. She pressed her tongue gingerly against her teeth and sucked in a breath at finding them impossibly sharp.

Her back hit the wall behind her and Lexi slid all the way down to the floor. She was just so fucking mad. Mad enough to see red, mad enough to think about murdering her own classmate. She could feel it coursing through the veins under her skin, making her muscles twitch and her breath stagger.

Stop. STOP.

Squeezing her eyes shut and throwing her arms up over her head, she pleaded with herself to calm down. Lexi took in deep stilling breaths as she counted the seconds until that manic feeling passed. Until the sharpness faded and her heart simmered down to a steady rhythm.

Something was wrong with her. At that moment she knew it had to be something truly terrible. This couldn’t be rabies.

This was something worse.


That night, Lexi’s dreams were a mess of dogs. Lexi was Buck, hijacked out of her own home and now trying to survive in the wild.

Soft earth and brittle pine needles beat underneath her paws. The wind blew through her fur as she leaped over fences and darted between rows of old trees, charging farther and farther into the dark foggy forest. Everything around her felt so vibrant and alive. Her ears twitched and swiveled at the faint snores of animals sleeping in their burrows. Night creatures skittered under shrubs or along the tall branches of the trees. An owl hooted a complaint when she bounced off the trunk of its tree to pounce a fat juicy possum. It fell over playing dead and Lexi nudged it with her nose. It wasn’t any fun if it wouldn’t let her chase it.

She circled around a tree only to catch something fuzzy flashing at the corner of her eye. Lexi chased it, finding herself spinning in dizzy circles before she realized she was after her own tail.

Then she paused stock still. A scratching and scrabbling had captured her attention. Ears swiveling again, she took a few creeping steps through the underbrush to follow the sound. Even with nothing but pale moonlight, Lexi could still see the critter’s striped face and the wiggly paws fussing with what looked like a discarded candy bar. Wild raccoons were surprisingly huge!

This one wasn’t going to get away.

Fast as lighting, Lexi charged. She could feel the force of the movement in her very bones. Quick, powerful electricity. She was on top of the raccoon before it even knew what hit it. With a chomp of her teeth she had its head locked in her jaws, flooding her mouth with the warm, coppery taste of blood. After a violent shake of her head, she dropped the dead raccoon and licked her teeth. Fresh raccoon tasted a hell of a lot better than her dad’s poor excuse for a pot roast.

A sudden howl in the distance made Lexi freeze, the fur on her back sticking straight up. She could smell it in the wind… something strange. Something wrong. The howls were a warning; Lexi wasn’t supposed to be there. There was something dangerous out there. And it was close.

It broke the tree line within moments, a great lumbering shadow, huge and bristling with pitch black fur. He was a more monstrous avatar of Spitz, just like in her book. Only a beast instead of a dog. Too large for a wolf, too small for a bear. The moment it locked eyes with her, its ears went flat against its skull. It smelled like pine and wet dog and a musk that registered in her mind as male. And then, lurking beneath that, that scent of wrongness that sent her gums peeling back from her teeth.

Its tail was sticking out straight behind it like a ramrod, and as it scented the air in her direction, it gave one sharp wag. It had scented her kill, was already padding slowly forward as if this were its territory and not hers.

Lexi’s ears went back and her stance shifted, her head lowering as she snarled a warning. That’s mine. Shooting up her spine was a mix of fear and thrill. This strange thing was a familiar nightmare, one that only a week ago would have sent her screaming and running through the woods like… like dinner. Ready to chew her up all over again. But Lexi wasn’t a scared girl anymore.

The monster was big. But Lexi was bigger.

Lexi bounced forward, all snapping jowls and growls and pure blood-burning adrenaline. He launched to meet her, weaving to bring his fore-paws down on top of her body and try to bear her to the ground with his full and considerable weight. She could feel his teeth catching in the fur at the ruff of her neck and the side of her muzzle, hot spittle flying as he snarled and thrashed. Caught off-guard, Lexi came crashing down into the messy scarlet smears left by her own kill on the forest floor.

The monster’s paw slipped in a slick patch, and the pair went rolling. Everything went fuzzy for a split second in the way that dreams were apt to do. All her senses were upside-down and sideways. She was rolling upside-down and sideways in a wriggling fury of slamming paws and ripping fur. Lexi had gotten a mouthful of the stuff and she wasn’t sure if it had been from the tail end or the neck.

Why was she always ending up like this? Even in dreams she was forever getting shoved around. Lexi was done with being a chew toy.

Somewhere in the shuffle she bucked him off, though it was such a blur that she didn’t know quite how she’d managed it. Not that it mattered, because she was so absolutely furious all she could see was angry red. Her fur fluffed out on end, Lexi knew, because she could feel it raising all along her back and around her neck.

Baring her teeth again, this time there was no growling warning before she charged. There was a high shrieking yelp from the black beast in answer, and Lexi felt something sharp catch at her chest and drag downward.

“STOP!” a deep voice bellowed.

The sound echoed through the trees and reverberated in Lexi’s very bones. Her paws dug in and ears went flat instantly, and suddenly she was aware of a wet burning in her chest. Something in her spine rippled and then twisted with a crack so loud that a guttural scream tore its way out of her throat.

She went hot, white hot all over. She felt like a piece of wax that was held too close to a flame, her skin slipping and sliding with a series of pops like stray gunshots. Before she knew it, Lexi was boneless on the forest floor in a crumpled heap.

Naked. Vulnerable. Human. And painfully awake.

The searing sensation was fading, but she could still feel something stinging on her chest. Her palms braced against the bloody earth, her wild hair hanging in a curtain around her face, she watched a drop of crimson splash inside the larger puddle beneath her. Her mouth was foul with a murky, metallic tang.

She slowly became aware of a scrabbling beside her, another body sitting up.

“Oh god,” a boy’s voice croaked. “Shit—”

“No. No, no, no,” she croaked. Her throat and voice were as raw as the rest of her body. It felt like her skin was no longer attached to muscle, just sliding around where it pleased.

This was a dream. Go back to being a dream.

But it wasn’t. Everything was as sharp as a pinprick, thousands of needles stabbing their way down from her head to her toes. Lexi stared at her shaking, bloody hands before wiping the back of one against her mouth, only to succeed in smearing blood and fur across her face. She brought her other hand to her chest where a curtain of red covered so much of her skin she couldn’t tell if there was a line of gashes or if a hole had been ripped into her rib cage.

What did she do? Since when did rabies turn people into dogs?!

What the ff—” She choked on another sobbing scream.

“Alexa!” the same deep voice came again, this time more of a rumble than a boom of thunder. Closer now. Someone was wrapping something around her shoulders, rough denim that smelled like pine and her dad’s aftershave. It was a man’s jacket, oversized even on her. Large hands gripped her forearms tight.

“Dylan, how bad is it?”

“Not that bad,” the other voice answered, wavering. “It’s just a graze, I was only trying to stop her. It’s just the shift

“I know,” the deeper voice snapped. Then, lower and more gently, “Alexa. Listen to me. You’re okay.”

“No!” she shouted again. The fight or flight instinct was in full gear, but Lexi couldn’t seem to will her body to move. She felt like burned macaroni, all scorched and mushy. Swinging a fist was what she wanted to do, yet all she could accomplish was balling up her hands and bending forward, hoping to God that wasn’t her guts spilled all over the forest floor.

Something about his voice registered as familiar in the back of her mind. Holy shit. Was it creepy woods dude? She was out in the woods naked, chomping on animals and getting into fights with demons and here was this dude again?!

“Get away from me!” Lexi hissed through her teeth. She tried to scramble out of his grip, ignoring her noodle arms in an effort to slap herself free.

“I will when you’re calm,” he said firmly. “Look at me.”

Lexi lifted her head.

He was kneeling on the ground in front of her, the knee of his jeans getting slowly stained in the pooling blood and guts of the dead raccoon. His eyebrows were drawn together, lips pressed thin, and his tawny skin was slick with sweat around the collar of his t-shirt. He seemed to grow inexplicably bigger the longer Lexi looked at him. He wasn’t even on his feet, but she felt as though he was looming, filling up all the blank spaces in the forest. Had he been like this the other day? It was the most intense feeling. Just meeting his eye made it a little hard to breathe.

“Listen.” His voice was so gravelly and rough and fathomless that she would have thought he was much older than she was, had he not looked so young. Something in that tone made her really want to listen to him. “My name’s Caleb.”

He looked sort of familiar, and Lexi remembered what he’d said the other day: His sister had told him about her. Given his coloring, it wouldn’t be a shocker if this was that Silvia Whelan chick’s older brother. Even if she’d never met two people so unalike in size and personality. This must have been Whelan property.

The jacket draped over her must have been his, too. It occurred to her that it smelled like him, which was weird as fuck. It was also bulky enough that she could easily pull it around herself and mostly be covered. Getting a little more blood on it wouldn’t make a difference; it was already ruined.

“You’re using Sith Lord mind tricks on me!” Lexi squeezed her eyes closed, but that didn’t seem to shut out her present nightmare or that looming presence the guy had. It was so strong she almost forgot all about the other dude that was there.

Never in her life had she been so trapped in a contradictory wish of wanting Knucker to be around, but at the same time being glad he was nowhere in sight. The taste of salty iron was still in her mouth. Even being naked wasn’t as traumatizing as the thought that she could’ve been chewing on him instead of a fat raccoon and

“Just… fuck,” she cursed, finally just shoving her arms into the jacket and pulling it tight around her. Her bloody fingers fumbled through the line of buttons until she had some sense of covered modesty. What she should’ve been doing was punching this guy in the neck and taking off into the woods. But somehow she got the feeling he wasn’t like those assholes in town. It was more than just his words; Lexi guessed if his sister was nice, surely he had to be too.

Didn’t mean she wouldn’t bolt the second it sounded like a good idea.

“What the hell is going on?!”

“I should probably” began the other kid. He was peering over Caleb’s shoulder, a bit red-faced, his dark hair sticking up in all directions. He didn’t appear to be wearing a shirt.

“Go home, Dylan,” Caleb interrupted. His mouth twisted downward.

“Yessir.” Dylan jumped to his feet. Lexi got an eyeful of the dude’s naked ass as he jogged off into the trees.

A man of his word, Caleb released Lexi’s arms, though he kept his hands hovering close nearby. Like he thought she might fall over again.

“Can you stand?” he asked quietly. “I live nearby. You can get cleaned up and then I’ll take you home, or you can call your dad

“NO!”

Oh god, no. There was no way in hell her dad was going to believe her. He didn’t believe something had tried to eat her in the woods, so why the fuck would he believe that she was sleep-eating wild animals and fighting dogs in the woods? He’d think she just snuck off with Knucker again to raid another party and get drunk, then tripped and smashed her face or something. That would at least be something believable.

It occurred to her then that there were no other dogs in sight. Instead of a monster, it was just the other boy dashing off and disappearing. She wasn’t the only one with weird rabies. What the fuck.

Lexi scrambled to her feet, surprised that she didn’t teeter as much as she was expecting. Everything had hurt twice as much as when she’d been bitten the night of the bonfire. To be fair, she had been pretty numb from the booze. But she was also pretty sure the black beast from her dream-that-wasn’t-a-dream had slashed her up pretty good. She should’ve been bleeding out by now.

Caleb rose when she did. His broad shoulders were coiled tight, muscles tensing, bloody hands still at the ready to catch her. Lexi couldn’t help staring. If he wanted to, he could probably pick her up and throw her like a rag doll. His jeans were patchy with dark stains, and he was stepping in something Lexi would rather not think about. Between the two of them, they looked like they’d just committed a murder.

She guessed he couldn’t be much more than twenty, but he was huge. And tall. Not the tallest guy she’d ever met, but damn close to it. Lexi bet he’d probably played football in high school.

“I can’t tell my dad about this,” she went on with a little less panic. “Whatever the hell this is, alright. I justI want to know what it is and however many rabies shots I need to get.”

“It’s not rabies,” he told her, Adam’s apple working in his throat. “Alexa…”

Lexi visibly cringed.

“Lexi. It’s just Lexi,” she muttered. No one ever called her Alexa, except for her dad, usually when he was yelling at her. Or Margrit, who enjoyed being a real pain in the ass.

That swallow of his wasn’t comforting. Aside from the volume of his voice, nothing in his stony face seemed to change. It was like he was a statue, from head to toe, and it freaked it her out a little. But that swallow, that definitely meant something bad.

She balled up her fists and stood straighter.

“What is it? Just tell me. It’s some incurable disease and I’m going to die and then turn into a zombie, right? Except more like the dog version, so…Aw fuck.”

It was only then that Lexi realized that despite being in the thick of the woods, so dark that the sun couldn’t possibly be in the sky above them, she could see clear as day. Every twig, every scattered pine needle underfoot, every leaf in the branches above their heads. The wind picked up, tugging at Lexi’s borrowed jacket, and her nose was suddenly going nuts too. She could smell pine and damp earth and chickens, and something else closer and musky and strange that made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. In the distance, she could hear a rooster crow.

There went that ice cold panic again. Lexi tensed up ready to bolt. This wasn’t real. None of this could be for real.

Now he was frowning.

“Lexi,” he corrected. “You’re not going to die. But no, there isn’t a cure. Just… You’re not alone in this, either. You’re not crazy.”

Telling her she wasn’t crazy didn’t mean anything. It was a lie. One big huge never-ending clusterfuck where it all just kept getting worse and worse. You told people they weren’t crazy before you took them to an asylum, or a weird government hospital where they dissected you and pulled out all your guts to see how you worked. There were thousands of books and TV shows about it!

He took another slow step toward her, hands still raised like he was approaching some kind of wild animal.

“No,” she said again. Then, before he could grab her, she darted for the trees.

If he called out to her, Lexi didn’t hear it. She just ran like the devil was on her heels, faster than she had ever run, enough that her vision blurred and everything that passed her looked blended together. She told herself it was just because she lost so much blood and that it couldn’t possibly be the nightmare that was taking over her body. Nothing was wrong with her and it was all going to go away.

She hadn’t known where she was running to until the generic brick home of the Polks came into view. Some common sense must’ve still existed in her brain somewhere, because she paused at the front door before she made the mistake of knocking. If the Sheriff saw her like this…!

Quickly she darted around the side of the house until she found Knucker’s bedroom window. Sneaking into each other’s rooms was nothing newthey’d done it enough times as little kids. Lexi jiggled the ancient frame until the lock slipped loose, then pushed the window open. In seconds she had climbed inside and made a beeline for the disheveled bed. All the blood and gore was forgotten as she crawled onto the mattress and shook at Knucker’s sleeping form.

“Knucker! Knucker wake up! This is bad, it’s really bad!”


When he heard the soft rattle of his window opening, Knucker thought it was a dream.

Lexi shaking his shoulder and whispering his name was something he’d dreamed about before, but it was also something that had happened in actual waking life, and so he cracked his eyes open to blink blearily in her direction. The dim light of early dawn was just beginning to crawl into his bedroom, but it was still dark enough that he couldn’t make out much more than Lexi’s silhouette leaning over him.

Then he noticed the smell.

“Lexi?” he stammered, nose wrinkling, “What

He struggled up onto his elbows. Their noses were practically touching, just by sheer accident, but something on her breath or on her clothes smelled like sweaty batteriesand that wasn’t particularly Knucker’s dream. This must have been the real deal, and suddenly his heart squeezed painfully tight in his chest.

“Lex,” he said again, reaching up to tuck her windblown hair behind her ear. Fuck. She was shaking. “What happened?”


Damn, she was so glad to see him. Knucker was real and solid and dependable. But when she looked down to see blood-spattered denim and her bare knees, her last hope that everything had just been part of a lucid dream shattered. The dirt, grime, and gore were still there. The whole world was different now and not in the way she wanted it to be.

“I killed something,” she whispered first. Lexi drew her hands up to her mouth, wincing with the motion and looking for a second like she was going to throw up. Her whisper rose to a croaking shout. “I ate it!”

“I’m a wolf, Knucker! A freaking wolf!”


“Shhh!” he hissed frantically, his palm plastering over her mouth. Was she crazy?! For a long and horrifying moment, his biggest worry was that his dad would hear Lexi and wake up and catch them in here like this and think God knew what.

Then her actual words sank in.

“…Y-yeah,” he tripped over his answer, feeling a wash of cold as the blood drained from his face. “Yeah, I kind of figured.”

Categories
Setting Fire

Setting Fire 03: The Girl in the Steelers Cap

A little girl with long brown hair stood in the middle of a field.

 

“Alex!” she cried, spinning in a circle. The sound startled a murder of crows nearby, their black wings beating as they took flight and scattered. Shrieking, the girl clapped her hands over her ears. “Alex, please, where are you? I’m scared!”

Behind her, tall dark shapes loomed like reaching giants. It took a moment to place that they were transmission towers. Power lines stretched out across an overcast sky and straight on into forever.

Lexi looked down at her hands. They were… weird. Too large. Covered in what looked like blood.

When she lifted her eyes again to the road in front of her, she spied something up ahead. Something blue, abandoned on the wayside. Her phone? She’d been looking for her phone, hadn’t she? She padded forward.

She was going too fast. So fast that she couldn’t stop, her feet gaining seemingly endless momentum even as she dug in her heels. She skidded right past her target, tumbling down to the dirt path in a pile of gangly limbs. Her arms flopped out to either side of her and braced for impact. One of her hands fell on something soft.

Lexi picked it up.

It was a child’s denim headband.

“Alex!” Up ahead, something large darted across the gap between the dark trunks of the pine trees. “Alex! Don’t leave me! Alex!


“Alexa. Alexa.

Lexi’s head suddenly hit the mattress when her pillow disappeared out from under her. Before she could utter out a complaint, that same pillow ploomfed against her head.

“Your alarm has been going off for thirty minutes, you’re going to be late for school at this rate,” complained her Dad. Jacob Ryan didn’t stand around waiting for her to get up either. He just hit her again with the pillow to make double-sure she was awake, then strode out the door grumbling something cliche and OLD about back in his day under his breath.

She shifted to her elbows, pillow sliding away and onto the floor as she cast her ajar bedroom door a scowl. Lexi finally sat up, rubbing her face with both her hands to try and wipe away that bleary-eyed, groggy feeling.

The dream left her a little unsettled. It wasn’t particularly odd or even a nightmare, but it gave her that creepy off sensation. Subconsciously her hand rose up to rub her shoulder where that tingly feeling lingered the strongest.

ALEXA!

“I’M UP!” she shouted back, throwing off her covers and dragging her feet to the bathroom. “So annoying.”

Her muttered complaint went unheard—but not the slamming of the bathroom door. That was hard enough to rattle the picture frames on the hallway wall. The funny part was that she didn’t actually MEAN to slam the door. Lexi cringed and waited with bated breath for her Dad to have a fit about it, and sighed with relief at the silence.

But her morning just kept getting weirder and more frustrating.

Lexi had a ritual every morning, just like most teenage girls did. Use the toilet; take a shower; brush her teeth; fuss with her make-up, hair, and clothes. Maybe hers drew the line at simple smokey eyeliner and making sure there weren’t any knots in her hair, but there was still a process. She had to shave her legs TWICE today. Somehow she didn’t do a good enough job the first time, is what she figured. Then she nearly stabbed herself with her own toenails, her TOENAILS, and in that process discovered hairy spots on her feet as well. Batches of fuzz were winding up everywhere. Apparently the universe had just decided she was old enough to inherit the Ryan family body hair gene and turn her into Bigfoot.

She had it all under control though. Lexi was clean, smooth and ready to put on her face as Knucker’s Nana loved to say.

The second she peered at herself in the mirror she shrieked.

Lexi pawed at her cheeks and chin. She had a beard. It wasn’t even a REAL beard. It was the kind of wiry, twisted patches of hair that fourteen-year-old boys had before they could actually grow a beard. She scrambled to fetch her razor out of her shower. The last thing Lexi needed was to go to school with even MORE fuel for the torment fires.

A fist pounded on the bathroom door.

“Alexa, for god’s sake, other people need to use the bathroom.”

“I’ll be done in a MINUTE! I’m having ISSUES.”

“You’ve had your period for five years now, Alexa, you know what to do by now!”

“DUDE, IT’S NOT MY PERIOD, OKAY.”

A second later Lexi swung open the door, clean shaven AGAIN and without a hint of facial hair. She glared at her dad, who peered back with a weary, unimpressed expression before he stepped past her into the bathroom.

Her battle continued in the kitchen, when the microwave decided it wanted to be a huge piece of shit and not register when she was pressing buttons. After the seventh try Lexi got so frustrated she smacked it with the heel of her hand. Normally a couple solid smacks and the thing would behave.

This time the top caved in and the door fell off.

Lexi was still blinking, dumbly at the fallen door when her Dad entered the kitchen. He didn’t say anything at first. Jacob was just as confused as his daughter at seeing the microwave dented at the door laying at her feet.

“Am I double-grounded?” Lexi blurted out, kicking herself after the fact. All she had to do was keep quiet, maybe he wouldn’t have thought of that!

Jacob let out a world-weary sigh. “You’re going to pick up some things for me after school.”

Lexi was totally okay with this, and made sure to keep her mouth shut through the rest of breakfast.


Outside of her issues in the morning, the rest of Lexi’s school day went without a hitch. IF she ignored Margrit giving her demonic looks during Calculus. Lexi was unfortunate enough to be trapped not just with Margrit and Owen, but also their frienemy Angela Mercy who thankfully wasn’t interested in helping Margrit torture the student body, but was still loud and intimidating. Being outnumbered and without Knucker, Lexi spent the last period of the day tucked away in a corner hiding under her book.

The second the bell rang, she was out of there. Normally she’d meet up with Knucker outside on the front steps, but they were officially grounded for the rest of the week. Maybe even the rest of their life. That meant Knucker was stuck getting picked up by Sheriff Dad and held hostage for ride-alongs, while Lexi was going to have to WALK to do all the errands her own dad put her up to today. As she glanced down at her feet, she second-guessed this whole dressing cool thing. After all the weird hairy problems, she opted for skinny jeans and a plaid button-up shirt that was actually fitted instead of looking like she grabbed some old flannel out of her dad’s closet. The shoes were the problem, though. Lexi was kind of digging the whole look country-punk look, but even with thick, chunky heels she was still getting used to walking in them.

Her whole sense of equilibrium had been off lately. Last thing she wanted was to fall on her ass just trying to WALK.

Turned out, she overthought the entire thing. Once she got going and quit dwelling on it, Lexi got lost in other kinds of thoughts. When dropping off some bills at the post office, she wondered how she’d get her homework done when she had track practice. Could she get Knucker to do it? He never did do her homework for her, even when she sulked. But maybe this time she had a good excuse. In the library while returning some books, she tried to figure out when her dad actually had time to read between working at the gas station and fixing cars. Did he do it just to meet women? When even was the last time her dad talked to a woman?

Her last stop was the downtown automotive shop where her dad always special-ordered parts. She passed the list over to the cashier, wrote down when they could be picked up, and then she was officially all done. Lexi stepped outside, glowering at the sky. How long did all that crap take? Fishing her phone out of her front pocket (which was apparently a huge pain in the ass with skinny jeans—why didn’t these things have deeper pockets?), she checked the time. Three hours were wasted walking around town for lame errands, when all of that could have been done in twenty minutes if Knucker drove her around.

Scoffing under her breath, she tilted her phone to thumb out that exact complaint to her friend as she took a turn towards home.

A low wolf-whistle interrupted her thoughts.

“Hey there, Red!” followed a young male voice. When Lexi tore her eyes away from her texting, she spotted its owner right away. He was tall and tan and had a broad, toothy grin and he was flanked by a quartet of his friends. They were Lexi’s age, but she was pretty sure they didn’t go to her school if only because they were actually talking to her. All five of them were wearing rich kid clothes. Just t-shirts and jeans, but you could tell those jeans cost three times as much as even Lexi’s nice new pair.

Lex figured these were St. Cyprian’s boys. Silent Pines wasn’t exactly a big town. There were only three schools offering 9-12 education—and obviously, Silent Pines High was where most kids went. But there was also the Koowahoke Charter School, built back in the 90’s when a group of Lenape Nation members had moved up from the Mountville area… and then there was St. Cyprian’s.

“You don’t look like a mechanic, sweetheart,” the boy told her as the group approached from a little ways down the sidewalk, fanning out around her. “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”

There he went again. Lexi was still convinced he wasn’t talking to her and even glanced around behind her to see if some other girl was nearby. All she saw was a bunch of rich dudes lurking about like they were some kind of gang. Of course SHE belonged there. Lexi probably knew more about cars than these dirtbags did. They all looked like they just walked about of an Abercrombie & Fitch or something. She wasn’t intimidated in the slightest.

“…Why are you talking to me?”

Okay, maybe she was the tiny bit irked by a sudden group of strangers. It wasn’t like school, where she at least knew and was familiar with everyone there, even if she didn’t know them on a personal basis. Lexi already met a couple new people this week. She was so not ready to try her hand at a bunch of random weirdos in expensive t-shirts.

“I’m actually leaving a place like this, so. Bye.” Maybe if she didn’t know they were going to do that same spiel all the guys in her Auto Mechanics class did about a girl and car stuff, she wouldn’t have had that slight bit of annoyance in her voice. She thumbed out another message to Knucker, this time about expensive jeans as she stepped to the side to squeeze between the dude and one of his friends.

“Hey whoa, whoa, Red. What’s your hurry?” the talkative one said as he caught Lexi’s arm. His grip was just a little too tight. “Don’t be shy. Come get a coffee with me and the guys.”

Even though the guy was tall, Lexi was taller in her heels. It was easy to forget she was such a beanpole when she only ever hung around with one person.

“Man, I think she thinks she’s too good for us or something,” one of the other boys chimed in. He was smaller, blond. He shoved his hands in his pockets and gave Lexi a cold stare.

“Nah, that’s not true, is it?” The tall one smiled wider at Lexi. “We’re making friends.”

“I HAVE a friend already,” she retorted, twisting her arm free and then rubbing the spot to get that skin-crawly feeling to go away. It’s not like she was weird about her space or anything, but there was a grand total of four people that ever actually touched her. This guy and his troll smile that was way too reminiscent of Margrit’s were definitely not on that list.

How much of a dork would she be if she took off running down the street? Everyone at her own school already knew she was a coward. It wouldn’t make much difference if she had a shitty reputation at another. Lexi just didn’t want to end up chucked into a dumpster and have a second pair of expensive new school clothes ruined.

“…Besides, I’m grounded. I have to get home,” she added quickly, because the blond one was starting to get all scowl-y like she’d insulted them. That was how things always played out right before she ended up in a locker or a toilet.

“Ohhh, she told you, Marcus,” laughed a boy wearing a dark green t-shirt. Lexi’s would-be friend—Marcus, evidently—flashed him a dark, steely look in answer.

“You’d better hurry home then, Red,” was all he said, however.

This time Lexi didn’t wait around to hear more. She backed up to continue on her way, making sure she kept any nearby trash cans in her sight just in case. What she didn’t think to keep an eye on were the boys.

She passed by the old grungy office building on the corner and continued on down the block. It was a brisk day, the chill wind harsh against her cheeks. She glanced up at the sky, watching a pinwheeling bird swoop in a slow circle past a cloud, and pulled out her phone again when it buzzed.

Midway through reading Knucker’s reply, Lexi heard voices and stopped to glance over her shoulder. The group of St. Cyprian’s boys had turned the corner and were walking towards her, laughing and shoving each other. Marcus caught her eye.

“Sure you haven’t changed your mind?” he called. “Looks like we’re all headed the same way.”

Lexi realized this might’ve been the first time in her life she was actually worried about being followed. Her dad was best friends with the Sheriff. Her own best friend was the Sheriff’s kid. They may have had trouble at school or whenever they had the misfortune of running in to Margrit elsewhere, but the rest of the time? Lexi couldn’t think of a single moment where anyone had actually approached them, followed them, menaced with a creepy van, or otherwise lurked around corners.

She also realized it was always “we” and “us” and never just her alone by herself. If she couldn’t walk down a stupid street without Knucker, how the hell was she supposed to survive when he left for college?

“Uuugh! Go walk down some other street, you jerkwads!” she shouted over her shoulder.

Then she did run. Only far enough to turn the corner around the nearest building, mostly because she nearly fell on her face when she did. Luckily, despite her overconfidence in running with heels, Lexi did have one advantage over a bunch of stuck-up rich boys. They didn’t know this side of town the way she did.

Ignoring her irrational fear of dumpsters, she darted past a couple to take a detour through the trucker’s parking lot of some store. Once she squeezed through the opening of a broken fence on the other side, she was right back where she was supposed to be: on the street heading home, hopefully with a few less idiots behind her.

She nearly stumbled on her heels right into a wall of Marcus. He grabbed her wrists to steady her and smiled.

“Careful, sweetheart.” He eyed her up and down, and Lexi could see his friends standing behind him a few feet away. Green Shirt and the fourth boy, who was thin and reedy and dressed in blue, were leering; the blond boy was staring dead at Lexi, cold and stone-faced. “You don’t look happy to see me! Don’t be like that.”

“Damn, she’s tall,” said Green Shirt. “Sure she’s not part pine tree?”

“Don’t mind Justin,” Marcus told Lexi. He was still holding her wrists. “Give me a smile.”

What did they do, run down the street to catch up with her? How freaking creepy was that! Lexi especially didn’t like that he was so deadpan serious. Like he actually expected her to. She’d thought a demonic red-head’s sanguine sweet threats had been terrifying, but for some reason this guy asking her to smile made her skin crawl.

This was dumb. Knucker was taller than this dude and she could wrestle him to the grass. Apparently putting on nice clothes and high heels turned her in to a baby!

“How about you all eat a dick,” she retorted in frustration. “Get off me!”

Lexi tried to shake her wrists free. Her bad case of rabies had to be wearing down, because none of that nice microwave-punching strength was helping her out today. When she couldn’t pull free she threw all her weight into shoving him.

It worked; he stumbled backward, fell, and landed on his elbows on the asphalt. Lexi had just enough time to feel smug about it before one of the other boys laughed and Marcus’s face went red.

“Fuck you, bitch!” he snapped, back on his feet in an instant, and then he was grabbing Lexi by her hair and hauling her towards the broken fence behind them. White-hot pain flashed across her scalp, followed by a sickening ripping sound. His arm pressed against her throat as he shoved her against the partially rotted wood and leaned in close enough that his nose poked hers. “You’re going to regret that.”

This wasn’t a busy street, Lexi remembered. It was a side street, little more than an alley, mainly used for thru-traffic; there were no storefronts facing them on this stretch of the road. She thought frantically to look around for help, but she was tunnel-visioning; all she could see was the trio of boys standing in a semicircle like waiting vultures. Waiting for what, exactly?

Her panicked gaze landed again on the boy with blond hair, and for a moment, Lexi swore that his cold, dead eyes had gone jet black.

“Now,” Marcus said again, “Tell me you’re sorry.”

“I’m sorry,” Lexi heard herself squeak.

“Good girl. Now—”

Get the fuck off of her!” a voice shouted from directly to Lexi’s left, and Lexi caught a flash of metal reflecting in the sun. There was a dull sound that reminded Lexi of a single, muffled knock as the tip of a baseball bat crashed down on Marcus’s shoulder. It fell useless to his side as he cried out and whirled towards his assailant.

The girl brandishing the bat at Marcus was even taller than Lexi. She wore a plaid shirt, ripped jeans, and scuffed combat boots; her long brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Because the sun was behind her, Lexi couldn’t see her face. All she could see was the Pittsburgh Steelers logo on her baseball cap.

She shook the tip of the bat at Marcus.

“You chucklefucks are lucky it isn’t a gun!” she yelled. “Back off!”

Lexi couldn’t explain it. It all had to be psychological, because she sure as hell wasn’t sorry and she was more than happy to take it all back the second she wasn’t being pinned to a fence or being stared down by some guy’s roaming black contacts. She hadn’t thought his eyes were that dark, but they must’ve been.

Or maybe he had cracked her head against the old fence and that was her brain leaking out.

Her hand jumped up to her hair and she rubbed her fingers against her scalp to check for blood. At the very least Lexi knew he got a fist full of her hair. It was still burning where he pulled, but there were no signs of blood.

Lexi’s second instinct was to check her new clothes to make sure he hadn’t ripped anything, but she was suddenly finding herself a lot more brave when she wasn’t the only target in the lane.

“Yeah, get fucking lost!” she shouted, stooping to pick up a sizable chunk of broken brick. Lexi hurled it at the boys, and though it completely missed her new buddy Marcus, it might’ve done a nice bit of damage if the jerk behind him hadn’t dodged out of the way.

“Or I can call the Sheriff!”

That probably took away all of the badass points she might’ve earned, but for once, Lexi was glad Knucker’s dad was a cop.

Though Marcus fell back, clutching his arm, Green Shirt—Justin—made a grab for the girl’s bat. She dodged around his reaching hand, and his efforts were rewarded with a jab of the bat handle in his eye and a second blow to his gut.

“I will call the cops,” Lexi’s savior insisted, and something niggled in Lexi’s memory as she heard that light drawl come out. “Anyone else want to try somethin’?”

“We should go,” the blond boy said. When Lexi looked his way, she had to blink, because he’d come closer now and his eyes were a very pale blue. What she’d seen earlier must have been a trick of the light. “Marcus.”

“Yeah, okay.” Marcus shot Lexi an insincere, pained smile. “Didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”

The girl in the Steelers cap watched the boys’ retreating backs until they got to the end of the road, then turned toward Lexi and lowered her bat. Now that Lexi could see her face clearly, she realized why that voice had sounded familiar. It was the girl she’d promised a soda in the school showers the day before.

“Hey,” she said. “You okay?”

“Yeah, I’m cool,” Lexi spat back with a lot more anger than she actually intended, especially considering the girl just saved her ass. She wasn’t hurt, not really, but Lexi still found herself taking several pacing steps and trying to shake the sharp crawling feeling out of her arms. And her hands. Her hands were shaking. It took shoving them into her back pockets and then bending forward ever so slightly to keep them still and to actually be able to breathe and swallow at the same time.

This was worse than nearly getting eaten by a bearwolf in the woods. At least then no one saw her screaming and flailing like a dumbass. There was just the aftermath of gore and her hanging all over stupid Owen DeWhitt. Now she was having a very hard time meeting the eyes of a girl who was naked the first time they’d actually spoken.

Lexi heaved a heavy sigh.

“I’m—I’m good,” she muttered, finding that focusing all her annoyance on an empty fast food bag rolling by from the wind was helpful. “Sorry, I mean thanks. Thank you.”

Luckily, the other girl didn’t seem to be offended by Lexi’s rudeness. She was leaning on her bat, one hand in the pocket of her jeans, waiting patiently for Lexi to stop freaking out.

“No prob,” she answered. She lifted a hand to tug her cap’s brim down a few hairs, like she thought it might suddenly fall off. “You, uh… Do you need a ride or anything? I’ve got a bike.”

Yeah, Lexi could see that happening. Just hopping on the handlebars of some girl’s bicycle and trying to trek it all the way up and down the hills back to the gas station, where she would then have to explain why she lived behind a gas station. Even if this girl was crazy tall and could maybe see around Lexi, Lexi still knew from experience that she and bikes were a bad mix.

Except, she had been cursing her dad for making her walk around town. Not to mention having a repeat meeting with those boys out on the more country streets where there wasn’t going to be some bat-swinging football chick didn’t sound like a great idea. Those jerks were probably riding around in their spotless F-150s as if they ever actually needed a truck, and prowling the street looking for more trouble.

“Uh… well okay,” she responded, still dubious about the whole idea. “I’m not all that good with bikes though.”

The girl gave a strangled laugh. “It’s cool. I’ll give you the helmet.”

She stepped forward, hefting the bat up and over her shoulder, and stuck out a hand to Lexi. Her fingernails were clipped down to nubs, her palm calloused and smudged with dirt, but her fingers were long and slender and almost delicate-looking. Lexi could totally picture them wrapped around a football, easy. She bet the girl’s hand-span was huge.

“C’mon,” said Football Chick.

Wait what. Were they going to hold hands all the way to her bike—oh god, girls were weird—Oh, no. Right. Normal people shook hands or something when they first met. Lexi was officially stupid. She didn’t know this girl’s name, this was what you did.

Jesus Christ, Knucker was going to laugh at her for DAYS. Oh, he’d pretend like he wasn’t, but she’d see that dumb smile he’d try to suppress by biting his lip. Lexi bet he’d go all scatterbrained and forget how to be a person too if he almost died and some giant offered him a ride.

“Yeah I definitely need a helmet,” admitted Lexi amidst trying to pretend her face wasn’t going red from pure embarrassment at her own stupidness. It didn’t help that when she did take the girl’s hand, Lexi’s grip was a little too firm and her arm rigid. She was trying to remember what her dad said about the best handshakes and came off like a robot.

Then she made it worse. With finger guns.

“You lead the way, Shower Girl.” And worse still, apparently. There were good reasons why she didn’t talk to anyone but Knucker.

“…Kendall,” supplied the other girl, ducking her head for a moment and rocking on the heels of her boots. A piece of wispy chestnut-colored hair had fallen free of her ponytail; when she looked back up again, it was framing a face plastered with a lop-sided grin.

She didn’t wait around for Lexi to introduce herself in turn. Kendall had long legs that carried her quickly down the sidewalk, but thankfully Lexi didn’t have trouble keeping up. She carried the bat loosely at her side now that there weren’t any asshole boys to threaten.

“It’s just down the block,” she explained, pointing up ahead. “My bike, I mean. I was just about to hop on when I saw, well. You.”

Lexi didn’t see any bicycles on the sidewalk. There were a couple cars parked down the street, though, and there was…

Oh. Oh. That was a bike, yeah, but it wasn’t at all what Lexi had been picturing. Kendall’s bike was an old Indian Chief with a bright red paint job, straight out of the 1940’s. It wasn’t in top condition, but for a motorcycle that old to run it had to be well-cared-for, Lexi knew that much. Either Kendall knew something about something or she knew someone who knew something. Even if it wasn’t all original parts—which there was no way in hell that it was—there was going to be a lot of upkeep involved. Lexi’s auto shop class knowledge wouldn’t do her a lick of good if that thing broke down on her.

As they got closer, Kendall jogged ahead to open one of the black leather saddlebags hanging off the rear fender. She stuffed her baseball cap inside, then pulled out a helmet that matched the bike and held it out to Lexi.

Lexi took the helmet and stared at the thing as if she’d just been handed a live animal, then side-eyed the bike. Motorcycles were way different from bicycles. If she fell off of this she’d look as mangled as she did the other day.

But motorcycles were really fucking cool, though.

“I hope you broke that dick’s arm right off,” she exclaimed with all sincerity. Lexi tossed her hair to get it out of the way, making sure to tuck the auburn strands behind her ears before she shoved the thing on her head. Lexi kind of felt like she was wearing a fishbowl, but her eagerness to actually take a ride was drowning out all her concerns about looking like a dork. “…I think that might actually be worth a whole case of sodas.”

Kendall huffed with laughter and set to work strapping her bat to the back of the bike. When it was secured, she swung astride.

“Where to?” she asked, leaning an elbow on the handlebars. She looked as comfortable on that bike as if she’d been born sitting in the black leather seat. As tall as she was, she sort of looked like a model, sitting there like that. One who modeled motorcycles… except not at all like the girls on her dad’s magazines. Those girls definitely didn’t wear ratty old jeans and Timberland boots or have hat-hair.

Kendall didn’t even wear makeup—not even eyeliner.

“Sheriff’s office?” she suggested, her lips pursing. “You should report those guys.”

Lexi shook her head and grimaced.

“I should,” she agreed, “but the Sheriff is my dad’s best friend. I’m kind of already in trouble for some perfectly innocent party crashing and auto theft. If he has to call my dad about something else, I’ll be spending the rest of the year in my room sending in all my schoolwork by email.”

She knew it wasn’t her fault a bunch of dudes were being shitty, but her dad would worry and his worry came out in long unnecessary punishments under the pretense of being a protective parent. Sheriff Polk kind of got strict with Knucker, but not like her dad. Dad had her on a leash so tight, if she tugged too hard she’d strangle herself. It’s like he was afraid she was going to leave the house and rob a liquor store or something.

Kendall bit her lip, but after a moment she gave a slow nod.

“I live by Ryan’s Gas Station,” added Lexi.

She found herself faced with a new conundrum once she climbed behind Kendall. She figured out where to put her feet pretty quick, but what the hell was she supposed to do with her hands? Holding onto the seat didn’t feel secure at all, but the only other option was holding onto her. Right that moment the only thing Lexi could think of that’d be more awkward than that would’ve been tumbling off the back of the bike somewhere down the street and having to explain to her dad at the hospital that it was because she was afraid of hugging somebody.

“I’m just going to sneak my arms around here so I don’t die,” she announced in a muttered undertone.

“I don’t bite, I swear.” Kendall kicked up the side-stand with one booted foot and slid a key from her jeans pocket into the ignition. While Lexi was putzing about looping her arms in the most awkward way possible around the other girl’s waist (with a full inch gap of air between them), Kendall did some magic with the clutch and buttons that Lexi missed entirely, and the bike’s engine blazed to life.

“Okay. Uh, hang a little tighter,” Kendall warned, and then she was peeling simultaneously way too slow and way too fast away from the curb.

Lexi totally had this great and clever comeback line about how getting bit was the last thing she was afraid of (hello, single survivor of a hellish animal mauling here), but instead a strangled Oh fuck got blurted out as she tightened her arms around Kendall in a death grip. Any remaining concerns about clinging to a stranger were obliterated in that split second.

Once they’d taken a turn or two, Lexi was finding the experience not all that bad at all. Kendall seemed to know what she was doing (and where she was going, but you could list the gas stations in town on one hand so that wasn’t a shocker), and Lexi found that the ride felt a lot less like she was going to fall off at any second when she relaxed.

“This thing is cool,” she half hissed, half squealed over the rush of wind. Lexi officially knew what she wanted for Christmas.

“Thanks! It was my grandpa’s!” Kendall shouted in answer. Lexi hadn’t really expected her to hear, but of course she could hear her; Lexi was practically talking directly into her ear.

She didn’t try to keep up the conversation though, because they were merging onto the turnpike. Kendall’s ponytail was streaming in the wind behind her head as they zoomed down the open road. Lexi was kind of glad for the helmet now, because it would have smacked her right in the face without it–and her own hair would get all messed up, too.

Ryan’s Gas was on the very outskirts of Silent Pines, sandwiched between the big country turnpike and Devil’s Wood. It was prime real estate for gas, the last stop until you reached Merrywood and the closest fuel point to Lake Glass and all the campgrounds and hiking trails—and it was also the only place in town that catered to RVs. The gas station and auto shop had been in Lexi’s family since about the time Kendall’s bike had been built.

There wasn’t much else out here. Part of the area they called “Old Silent Pines”, where Knucker lived, was visible from the road, but only a few of the smaller brick homes like his. The view was mostly pine trees for miles and miles. Somewhere down a little further was the dirt road leading to a creepy-ass old cemetery that Knucker refused to go to, and past that was the Whelan family farm.

Lexi could see the red canopy of Ryan’s Gas coming up ahead. Kendall pulled into the station and slowed down as they approached the pumps, coming to a full stop and idling in one of the empty parking spots out front of the convenience store area of the station. She turned to look at Lexi over her shoulder.

“So…” she began.

Oh. Right. She should probably get off. Lexi hopped off the bike and onto the asphalt, finding herself bouncing on one foot just a bit to catch her balance. Sea legs (or motorcycle legs, or whatever it was) had her equilibrium out of whack again. Maybe it was just the exhilaration of a fun ride making all the blood rush to her head.

Speaking of which, Lexi pulled off the helmet and ran her hand through her hair trying to smooth out what was now a very staticky mess.

“Here.” She handed it to Kendall. “I now owe you twelve sodas for breaking an arm plus one if you didn’t make the football team. Did you?”

“Nah,” said Kendall, with a wry little twist of her mouth. “They let me try out, but uh… Coach said I should try rugby instead.”

She took the helmet and cradled it on her lap, the fingers of her other hand tapping against the handlebars of her bike. Her hair was windswept and not much better than Lexi’s.

“I haven’t decided if I’m gonna,” she went on. “What about you? Do you know yet if you made track?”

“Maybe you should go back and knock them all down again,” she commented with a frown. That had to suck. Seeing as how the girl was a giant and could handle sports equipment way better than Lexi ever could, she probably would have been awesome on the football team. What were they being choosy for anyway? They needed better players.

“They posted the sheet up for track today so you are looking at the newest uh… runner person.” Were they really just called runners? Lexi was going to have to figure out if they had a cooler name. In the meantime she scratched the back of her head, rubbing her fingers over that sore spot where her hair had been pulled.

“I’ll have to go to practice now once a week, I guess. Anyway, that’s thirteen sodas for you. I’d get you one now, but I’m still grounded for a few more days.”

“Then hit me up in a couple days,” replied Kendall, flashing a grin. “Got a pen in that backpack?”

Lexi did, in fact; she’d been using one of her dollar store knockoff Bics to check off her dad’s errand list, so it was sitting by itself in the side compartment and easy to get to. When Lexi stepped forward to hand it over with a totally unnecessary and weird flourish, Kendall gingerly grabbed her wrist.

“Here,” she said, uncapping the pen with her teeth and starting to neatly jot numbers onto the back of Lexi’s hand. Both of her feet were planted on the ground now, keeping her bike steady between her knees. “Gimme a text when you’re free. Unless, y’know, you need a jailbreak.”

“Ooookay.” Writing the number on her hand was totally unnecessary, Lexi thought. She could’ve just pulled out her phone directly and tapped it in there. She wasn’t sure if getting somebody’s number counted as part of her dad’s punishment no-no list. It had never actually happened before.

“A jailbreak is starting to sound more and more likely,” Lexi admitted, taking a few steps back and quickly holstering her hands in her back pocket before she started up with the finger guns again. Where did she even learn that? Who did that?! “I’ll probably see you at schoooool, then. Right?”

“Uh, yeah. Guess so.” Kendall slipped her shiny red helmet on over her head. Unlike Lexi, she lowered the visor, but not before adding a mumbled “Later, alligator.”

It wasn’t until Lexi watched the back of her plaid shirt disappear down the turnpike towards town that she realized she’d never even told Kendall her own name.


An ominous feeling had followed Knucker like a shadow all day. Maybe it was just the pounding headache behind his eyes that had him massaging his temples every other minute. (Could you get a hangover the day AFTER the day after?) Maybe he was just freaking out about Lexi being on the track team, or any number of the other alarming changes that his best friend was going through.

It had only gotten worse when Lexi had left on her own to go do errands for her dad. By the time Knucker was in the back of his dad’s squad car, he was basically reduced to holding his head in his hands.

“Kid, you okay?” Sheriff Polk was frowning at his son in the rear-view mirror. “You look like you’re gonna be sick.”

“Can I please go to the library?” Knucker blurted. “I know I’m grounded, but—”

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Please,” he begged. “I have a thing I really need to research and the school library doesn’t cut it, you know that, and I can’t use the internet when I’m grounded and you said not to research on my phone anymore because I’ll go blind—”

“Jesus,” interrupted his dad. “Okay, okay, calm down. You wanna tell me what this is about?”

Knucker’s mouth snapped shut.

“…Homework,” he answered, stuffing his hands in his pockets.

“Bullshit,” replied the Sheriff, eyeing his son with overwhelming skepticism. Crap, why did Knucker’s dad have to be a cop?! There was a tense, long, incredibly awkward moment as they stared at each other in the mirror and Knucker tried to look as innocent and unoffensive and small in the backseat as possible (and failed entirely, he was pretty sure).

The Sheriff sighed. “Are you meeting Lexi at the library?”

No,” promised Knucker. “I swear. I really just need to do some research. It’s… It’s personal.”

“…We’re gonna talk about this later, son,” his dad warned. “Don’t think you’re out of it. But I guess I should just be happy I have a kid who wants to go to the library when he’s grounded and actually asked.”

“Thanks, Dad,” Knucker told him, slumping.

“Don’t thank me yet. I’m dropping you off and I’ll be picking you up in two hours. You’d better be exactly where I left you, you got that? Or you’re grounded for a whole month.”


The Silent Pines Library wasn’t exactly bustling on any day of the week, but on the Tuesday of the first week of school, it was practically a ghost town. Most kids Knucker’s age were still clinging to their summer freedom and not yet ready to jump straight back into the semester-long slog of books and research.

Knucker, obviously, was not most kids his age.

He wasn’t the only one, though. There was a teenager who Knucker had never seen in his life standing by the front desk and chatting with the librarian. He had dark hair with a bit of curl to it and was wearing a grey t-shirt, jeans, and leather shoes that looked like they cost more than Knucker’s whole outfit combined. He had a matching leather satchel over his shoulder. He turned to look at Knucker as he got closer, and Knucker inexplicably felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.

“Hello,” said the stranger. “I’m sorry, am I in your way?”

“No,” stammered Knucker, realizing in a mortified rush that he’d been staring. (He really needed to stop just gawking at people.) “I was just—uh.”

The guy tilted his head, then turned back to the librarian. “Thank you for your help, miss.”

“You’re welcome,” she replied in a misty tone that Knucker had never heard her use before. The other boy straightened up and walked past Knucker toward the entrance. For a brief moment, he clapped Knucker on the shoulder.

“Ask her about what they keep in the back,” he mentioned in an undertone. Knucker blinked after him.

What the fuck was that? he asked himself, not even bothering to edit his own thoughts. The pounding in his skull had reached a crescendo. All he could hear now was a dull roar.

Knucker was beginning to recognize that underpinning of dread that had been nipping at his heels all day. It was a delayed epiphany, a creeping and slow-dawning realization, that his life was never ever ever going to be the same again.

Categories
Setting Fire

Setting Fire 02: Bright-Eyed and Bushy-Tailed

Knucker was pretty sure he knew what Hell must feel like.

Okay, maybe he was being a little bit dramatic. (Fine, a lot dramatic.) But after the night he’d had, he kinda sorta thought that he had a right to be, especially in the harsh light of morning when the reality of the situation had sunken in and he and Lexi arrived for their first day of school in the Sheriff’s squad car. Which wasn’t the kind of “making their senior year memorable” he’d been thinking of when Lexi had pushed to go crash that party.

Yeah, fun perk of being the Sheriff’s kid and getting in trouble. Punishments were out of this world and humiliating. Despite driving (his own car, anyway) not being involved in last night’s incident, Knucker’s dad had confiscated his keys until further notice. The only thing he’d been allowed to drive was Margrit’s car… to the Berkshire Estate… after scrubbing blood out of it. That night.

Knucker hadn’t exactly gotten much (or any) sleep.

Which is why he was staring blearily in frustration and something like awe at his completely bright-eyed and bushy-tailed best friend. As per usual, Lexi had gotten steamrolled and still had the energy to run in circles. Although… she normally didn’t literally heal overnight. And yeah, Knucker was still kind of freaking out about that.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” he muttered, fidgeting in his seat and glancing around at the other kids in their homeroom. Everyone was pretty distracted, though, all clustered into little groups and talking. Except Robbie Kilpatrick, who was clicking away furiously at something on his laptop. (Knucker saw him on that thing a lot, at lunch and in the morning and stuff. He was guessing Robbie was playing video games, or something? The guy looked the type.) There was a girl reading a textbook near the front of the classroom, too, which even Knucker had to admit was kind of lame.

The teacher was late and administration had apparently forgotten about them. It was the one good thing that had happened since Knucker had snuck out last night.


All things considered, Lexi really should have been dead. Or at the very least taking full advantage of their teacherless classroom to catch up on a little of the sleep she’d missed after a night of being viciously mauled by a rogue bear from hell. Instead she was constantly shifting in her seat, unable to keep still. She was dying to get up and do something. Run. Have breakfast. Anything that didn’t involve sitting motionless at her desk.

“Yeah, weirdly okay.” She leaned over her desk towards him, tapping her fingers against the surface and bouncing one knee. She looked like a cracked-out junkie the way she was fidgeting. “There’s not a scratch on me, I double-checked. Now Dad thinks I’ve lost my freaking mind along with my phone. I have to work an assload of shifts at the gas station now to pay for a new one.”

Uuuuurgh! How long had they been sitting here? Ten minutes? Fifteen? She wanted to get uuuuup. She was so wound up that she was tempted to just throw herself on the floor and start rolling around on the linoleum.

Lexi reached across to grab and tug at Knucker’s sleeve with both hands.

“Do you have any candy stashed on you? I’m starving.”


“No,” he groaned, not bothering to try and remove her hands. (He never did, honestly.) How are you even alive?! “I don’t have anything. Wait, maybe I’ve got some change, but I don’t know if sneaking to the vending machine is the greatest idea…”

Even if they weren’t that far from the cafeteria, Knucker was pretty sure the chance of getting caught was still pretty high. And they couldn’t afford to get busted for anything after not even one freaking day.

“Look… Maybe we can find your phone. The Dads will let us go out if it’s for that, right?” His uncertainty leaked into his voice. George Polk and Jacob Ryan were frighteningly similar when it came to their kids; never mind the consequences, the massive heaps of guilt were deterrent enough for Knucker and Lexi to keep their noses clean most of the time. But the consequences could be pretty dire too. “It won’t be too bad to walk out there and take a look around when we get home from school.”

They’d have to make it fast, though. Knucker wasn’t keen on going into the woods after dark anytime soon, if ever again.


“Tryouts for teams start today. Although, I guess since Dad is expecting me to be late anyway we could probably get away with searching for an hour or two.” She let go of his shirt just long enough to start rifling through his pockets. She was so hungry she could SWEAR that she smelled food on him. Maybe he’d spilled his breakfast this morning. When her search still bore no fruit and she’d checked the last pocket on him, Lexi gave up with a huff. She flopped back in her seat in a cascade of limp arms and long auburn hair.

“I wish I took a picture of that stupid thing before it tried to chomp my whole arm off. I could HEAR Margrit this morning all the way down the hall talking about us crashing her party.” Lexi stared at the ceiling, counting the little dots that surrounded the light fixture. She finally just laughed.

“It wasn’t what I was going for, but I guess we’re the hot topic now.” Lexi tilted her head, giving Knucker a big, wide, toothy grin. “Not too bad of a start for our last and greatest year of high school, right?”


He couldn’t help himself. That smile was infectious, and Knucker felt himself grin right back at her like a moron.

Then he blinked.

“You’re still going to try out? But Lex—”

Knucker’s (very reasonable, very sane) protests died at the sound of the classroom door being thrust unceremoniously open. Knucker—and most of the class—swiveled in their seats to stare at the person who must, presumably, be their truant teacher at long last arriving.

At first Knucker thought it couldn’t be. The man who’d walked through the door was young. He couldn’t be more than a few years older than some of the students, and he was even wearing a backpack. But sure enough, instead of scrambling for a free seat among the students, the guy tossed his bag under the teacher’s desk at the front, ran a hand through curly brown hair (which didn’t get any flatter, Knucker noticed), and took off his glasses to clean them on his grey Henley while grinning sheepishly at his students.

Knucker could swear there was a collective sigh from the female portion of the class.

“Better late than never, right? I’m the new teacher, as you guys might have guessed, and I got a little lost…” The teacher paused, frowning, and put his glasses back on.

And Knucker was sure for a moment that the guy was looking directly at Lexi, which was not only weird, but weirder because he looked taken aback and uncomfortable. He would have thought Lexi knew him from somewhere—except Knucker didn’t know him from Adam, so who the heck could he be?

“My name’s Mr. Anderson,” the teacher supplied, on cue. “English, and—theoretically—homeroom. I think we’ve got about five minutes left, so, uh… Can you guys take pity on me and tell me if anyone’s not here who’s supposed to be?”


Like everyone else in the class, Lexi was staring curiously at Mr. Anderson. She could hear someone in the back mumbling under their breath about the guy’s backpack, and two of the girls on the other side of class giggling and whispering to each other about his glasses being hot. Lexi’s nose wrinkled up and twitched, forcing her to rub it because she was sure she was going to sneeze. He was wearing some sort of weird cologne and she—

What the hell are you staring at?!

Perturbed, she shifted uncomfortably and sat up a little straighter in her seat. Maybe there was ketchup on her shirt? She glanced down surreptitiously and fussed a hand through her hair to make sure that wasn’t sticking up everywhere wild and weird, either.

No stains. Her hair was fine. What was this guy’s deal?

“It’s the first day. You’re supposed to tell us who should be here,” she blurted out before she could help it.

Normally Lexi wasn’t one to sass a teacher. She sure as hell didn’t want to land in MORE trouble with her dad. But she just had to. That was what bold people did, wasn’t it? He’d started it by giving her weird looks. Lexi squinted and gave Mr. Anderson what she hoped was an intimidating glare.


“Holy cow, Lexi,” Knucker hissed in dawning horror. Holy shit! “Stop talking!”

For a moment, Mr. Anderson looked as shocked as Knucker felt. That sheepish grin faltered, and he cleared his throat.

“Yeah, that’s right. I’m the authority figure here,” the teacher answered slowly—and while his voice still held a bit of that friendly and laid-back tone, there was now an undercurrent that Knucker easily identified as Warning: Trespassers Will Be Shot. “We can talk about our respective responsibilities when you come see me after school today. Miss…?”

“Ryan,” Kelly Matheson, who’d lived down the street from Knucker since they were six, supplied all-too-helpfully from the third row, her head whipping up from where she’d been whispering furiously with—oh god, was that the scary girl with the scooter from last night?! He slid down in his seat. “She’s Lexi Ryan.”

Knucker put his face in his hands and prayed for the bell.


OhgodwhatdidIjustdo.

Lexi was already regretting her words even as Knucker hissed a warning beside her. You didn’t mouth off to teachers, you just didn’t. Now she was starting off senior year pissing off a new one, and everyone knew that new teachers had to set examples right from the start lest they get trampled on by students for the rest of the year.

“Yessir. After school.” Just like Knucker, Lexi was sliiiiiding down low in her chair and propping up a book to shield herself from more stares. She was getting a lot of them now. People in the back of the class were snickering.

Sorry, Lexi mouthed at Knucker, and miraculously kept her mouth shut after that until almost halfway through her first period lit class.


By lunchtime, Knucker had resigned himself to his role as best friend to the local lunatic. He was also struggling to keep his eyes open; he’d dozed off in the middle of Ms. Prewett reading the syllabus for AP Calculus and gotten a reprimand. (He was pretty sure he’d have gotten worse if he hadn’t been her student last year for Precalc.) He’d reached the kind of exhaustion where even eating seemed like too much of a chore… and if he wasn’t careful he was going to face-plant right into his cafeteria tray.

Lexi didn’t share that problem, apparently.

“Did you skip breakfast?” he asked her blearily, taking a gulp of much-needed caffeine and watching her wolf down her lunch. They’d only just plunked down at their usual table for two, but the food on her tray was disappearing fast. “Are you sure you’re not… you know… sick or something? From. Well. Last night.”

Last night, when you got mauled and then your wound disappeared within an hour. Because that’s normal.

“Maybe you should see the nurse?”


“The nurph isn’ gon’ tell me anyfin’ diffren’ from the docs last night,” Lexi responded between bites. Food, precious blessed food! She payed extra for the heap of things on her tray—which was going to hurt later considering that her dad was probably never going to give her allowance ever again. She’d spent all morning swearing she could smell the cafeteria all the way from the other side of the school, so actually getting to stuff her face now was heaven.

Her nose seemed to be pretty sensitive in general today. Between perfumes, socks, and teenage funk it was all kinds of nauseating.

“What’re the symptoms of rabies? I DO kinda feel sick. And rabid. Uuuugghhh…” She’d been acting rabid, too. Just remembering the great first impression she made with Mr Anderson had her groaning and clonking her head on the table. “I don’t know what happened back there. Have you ever just wanted to punch someone in the face the minute they walked in the room? Not that I wanted to punch him exactly, but yeah. Where did he get off staring like that, anyway? What kind of teacher does that?!”


“You’re eating too much for it to be rabies. You don’t have a headache or feel tired or woozy or anything, right? Does it itch where you got bitten?”

It wasn’t weird that Knucker knew the symptoms of rabies, alright? His dad just wanted him to be prepared.

“Besides, you’ve had your shots,” he went on, though he wasn’t so sure he sounded convinced. Because aggression and bizarre impulses were symptoms too, and Lexi was kind of scoring hard in those categories. “We both got them on the same day, remember?”

So maybe he was best friends with a rabid lunatic. At least that might make a good excuse for their teacher.

“So you don’t know that guy from anywhere?” he asked, frowning. (And hoping that didn’t sound jealous or accusatory. He wasn’t, really.) Yeah, he hadn’t thought so, but… Lexi was right; it wasn’t normal behavior. “Maybe he mistook you for somebody else.”


Lexi thought about it for a moment just to be sure, but no. She definitely didn’t know that guy. She shoved another piece of her extra sandwich in her mouth, not bothering to lift her head off of the table.

“Murrby.” She DID kind of itch. Not just where she was bitten; Lexi was itching all over. Like her skin was crawling or her hair was becoming sentient and waving about. Aaaand wasn’t that a freaky thought? Just in case, she took a look at her arm.

Normal.

Just as she was sitting back up, an angry fire demon slammed its hands on the lunch table in front of her face. Lexi jumped in her seat.

“You DESTROYED my car,” Margrit Berkshire hissed and leaned in. For every inch closer that she came, Lexi slid an equal amount lower in her chair. She was getting the urge to whimper but it was dangerous to show weakness to Margrit when she had that look. Her beautifully manicured finger lifted to jab at the tip of Knucker’s nose. “Which one of you little shits thought scrubbing imported leather with soap and water was a good idea?”

“It—it was me,” stammered Knucker. “I’m sorry, I—”

Suddenly, Margrit snatched her hand back and that murderous glare was replaced with something much, MUCH more frightening.

She smiled. Smiled so sweetly that angels might as well have been singing above her as light shone down from the heavens.

“Don’t worry, I explained EVERYTHING to your father this morning, Knucker. All about my party being crashed by a bunch of drunk college jerks. How Owen and I saved Lexi’s life by letting you borrow my car. He was VERY understanding.

“And now…” she giggled, reaching up to pat each of them on the cheek. Lexi kind of wanted to bite her fingers off, but the whole thing was so horrifyingly messed up that she couldn’t seem to do anything but sit there with her mouth hanging open like a dead fish—much to Margrit’s amusement, judging by the way her angelic smile rapidly melted into a downright nasty smirk.

“You gutter-trolling shits are going to be my bitches for the rest of the year,” she told them both, her voice dropping to a lower range as the false honeyed tone evaporated. “We’re going to have SO much fun!”

With those words hanging over their heads, Margrit turned away and walked off. They could hear her laughing all the way to her usual table, where she took a seat with Owen DeWhitt and Margrit’s freshman henchgirl Silvia Whelan.

Silvia was staring Lexi’s way with a peculiar expression blooming across her face.

“Holy shit, what just happened?” Lexi wondered aloud the moment that she finally found her voice. She was pretty sure that she was still in shock. “Are we… Did we die last night and go to hell?”


“Probably.” That would be a pretty good explanation. Not much was making sense anymore as of last night, so Knucker was prepared to believe a lot of things. Maybe they’d both died in the woods and this was Hell and Knucker’s Nana had been right about him.

He noticed Silvia Whelan staring and frowned a little. What was that all about? Knucker couldn’t guess. He didn’t really know Silvia; he knew she was younger than the rest of Margrit’s posse, and he knew she was also way too nice to be hanging out with Margrit and Owen. She was a tiny little thing with olive skin, long black hair, and all the pep you’d expect from a cheerleader. Like Margrit, Silvia came from one of the founding families of Silent Pines, which had to be the only reason she and Margrit associated. But that was the extent of his knowledge.

Tentatively, he waved his fork at her and hoped Margrit wasn’t watching.

Silvia scrunched up her nose and blinked at him, but she mimicked the motion with a little wiggle of her plastic spoon.

“You should probably take it easy today, Lex,” he told his best friend (who was actually scaring him a lot more than Margrit right now). “Let’s skip tryouts, okay?”

Beside the fact that Lexi may or may not have contracted rabies, Knucker was beat. He wasn’t about to tell Lexi that, of course, but she’d probably figure it out if he passed out in the middle of basketball or something.


Silvia looked like she was about to mouth something to Knucker—or Lexi—or both—but Margrit snapped her fingers in front of the girls face. She briefly went cross-eyed before looking away and answering the redhead’s question. Whatever the odd moment might have been about, it was now forgotten as the cool kids started chortling about something which (evidently) was incredibly hilarious.

Lexi scowled. If they were talking about her and Knucker… Rrrrghh.

Crap, it was like she was suffering from PMS times a MILLION.

Squirming uncomfortably in her seat, she shook her head at Knucker.

“I CAN’T bail on it now. We worked so hard all summer to make this year extra-awesome. We already failed at Epic Party Crashing. I mean, LISTEN to that.” She gestured to a table all the way across the room, where some of the other seniors were crowded. It wasn’t quite Margrit’s group. Those were the people who desperately wanted to be in Margrit’s group, and that was almost worse. She could hear them right now, competing to see who could come up with the best new name for the two of them. It was especially galling because they didn’t seem to care that Lexi and Knucker were listening. Normally they weren’t so LOUD about it. “I mean seriously, Little Red Ginger Hood and the Drunk Who Cried Wolf? Those aren’t even GOOD humiliating nicknames.”

Lexi’s scowl deepened as she sank in her seat.

“It’s okay if you don’t want to try out. …You’ll at least be there, though?” Amidst all her snarling and sulking was a hint of the non-rabid, insecure girl who was a lot more afraid to do things on her own than she liked to pretend. Lexi cast Knucker her best pleading pout.


Lexi was right. Those were pretty bad. Knucker was kind of an expert on humiliating nicknames; he was a weird, unpopular kid. Named Knucker. He’d been called every name in the book. For an entire year after the last Harry Potter movie came out, the school had known him as Knickers.

Problem was he hadn’t actually heard anyone using those names, other than Lexi.

Problem was, he was way more concerned about Lexi than he was scared.

Problem was he had never been able to say no to that face.

“I’m not going to let you do it on your own,” he told her, angling his soda bottle in front of his face just so and staring determinedly down at his mac and cheese. You might bite somebody and then they’d get rabies. It’s a public service. “Come on, you know that. Besides. I’ve got to cheer for you when you kick those jerks’ butts.”


“You’re the best!” Lexi threw her arms around his shoulders and squeezed him tight. It was her favorite thing to do because he was so hilariously awkward about it, especially when his hands were occupied and he couldn’t escape. “I’d be lost without you. I’d be, like, a sandwich without cheese. A burger without fries. A tater tot without ketchup!” Why were all her cheesy lines of affection about food today?

…Why did he smell like a steak?

“You’ve gotta tell your dad to stop grilling so close to the house. You reek like you’re what’s for dinner,” she remarked, releasing him and looking down at her empty lunch tray with a forlorn sigh. There was no time to grab any more food. The bell for fifth period would be ringing any minute.


No matter how many times she did that, Knucker still always turned as red as his hair.

It was even more embarrassing when she talked about smelling him. He hadn’t known it could get any more embarrassing at this point, but that did it. Also, weird. Why was she smelling him? Crap, he hadn’t really gotten a shower between all the car washing and school; did he smell bad? Grilled meat was an okay thing to smell like, right? “Reeked” wasn’t exactly a good word, though, was it?

Who was he expecting to answer him, anyway?

“Here,” he said, pushing his mostly untouched tray toward her, because he could see her thinking about food. “Go ahead.”

As cheesy as her metaphors might be, sometimes Knucker liked to believe them.

Watching her whole face light up was worth skipping out on fuel for the rest of his insane day.


As the school day drew to a close, sixth period let out a little early so that all hopeful students could make their way to the locker rooms to change and head out to the sports field where the annual Extra Academic Activity Fair was being held. Silent Pines High used the entire first week of school as an opportunity for clubs and sports teams to recruit new members, but everyone knew that the highlight was really on the athletics portion of the proceedings. Tables and tents had been set up temporarily all around campus. Monday’s chances at a spot on the field itself had been nabbed as per usual by the basketball team, the cheer squad, the girls’ softball team, the track team, football, and the school band; the rest of the sports teams and outdoor clubs would have to wait for another day or longer.

Lexi, of course, was going to go for everything BUT band. She was already enough of a loser without being part of the worst band in their school district.

Parting ways with Knucker outside of the gym, Lexi was one of the first girls to make it to the locker room to change. Her gym uniform was brand new and smelled strongly of “linen”-scented laundry detergent, and it took her less than a minute to get out of her jeans and t-shirt and into the shiny red jersey and shorts.

That was about where things started to go downhill.

As she was about to sit down and lace up her tennis shoes, Margrit rounded the corner with a few of the other cheerleaders. She stopped dead as soon as their eyes met, and Lexi knew something was coming just by the way the redhead looked her over from the top of her head right on down to her toes. When that familiar smug smirk appeared, Lexi braced herself. Margrit always looked particularly smug when she had something really nasty to say.

“Uh, did you join an unwashed hippie cult during the summer, Alexa? Or have you decided to go full-blown lesbian like your troll and just forgo the whole shaving thing?” Margrit sneered. Silvia peered around from behind her, brown eyes going wide and her mouth forming an O shape.

“What?” Lexi immediately looked down at her legs. What the fuck. They could have belonged to a middle-aged MAN with how much hair was all over them. But… she’d JUST shaved yesterday, knowing she was going to be wearing these shortass shorts for the tryouts!

“You’re going to fit right in with the football team,” chortled Margrit, turning on the heel of her bleached-white sneakers and sending her pleated skirt twirling as she flounced out. “Lets go, Silvia. We need to cheer on the ACTUAL athletes.”

Before Silvia followed, the smaller girl paused to whisper to Lexi.

“There are extra razors in my locker.”

Having to shave her legs as quickly as possible not only made her LATE but also left Lexi covered in little nicks all over the place, because Silvia didn’t have shaving cream in her locker and Lexi hadn’t exactly thought to keep any on hand. They itched like crazy. At least she managed to find a couple of band-aids at the bottom of her backpack. Once she got out onto the field and spotted Knucker on the sidelines, though, Lexi felt a TON more confident.

Sadly, that confidence didn’t do her a lick of good.

First up in her exercise in humiliation: the basketball court.

After spending the summer poring over the rules of every sport that Silent Pines High had to offer, Lexi was sure that she knew what to do. Top that off with surviving a wilderbear attack and there was no way she couldn’t do this. Once she was assigned her team and the whistle blew, Lexi gave a quick wave to Knucker in the bleachers and threw herself into the game.

Almost the second that she got out there, Lexi’s depth perception seemed to go sideways. Within five minutes, she took a basketball right to the face.

SRGHFT!” What Lexi actually yelped when she landed flat on her back was shit, but her hands had flown up to cover her nose and the muffled mess was all that could escape. She was positive she heard her nose CRACK, and as she pressed her fingers to it she could feel cartilage moving around under the skin. A wiggle and a snap later, it seemed to be just fine. Her EGO, though? Totally smashed.

“RYAN! You bleeding? No? Get up and get off my court!” shouted Coach Martinez. As soon as Lexi’s vision was no longer fish-bowling, she scrambled to her feet.

Lexi decided basketball was definitely not her game.

Cheerleading was a stupid idea in the first place and she fared even worse. Though really, she suspected Margrit might have sabotaged her on that one. Lexi was forced to be on the bottom of the pyramid. It was going okay despite the knees digging into her back until a whiff of REALLY strong perfume started to tickle her nose.

“AHHHchoo!

Honestly she wasn’t sure how a simple sneeze could have caused the whole pyramid to topple… but the girls swore up and down that she threw them. (The only good part about it was that Margrit had been on the very top of the pyramid. She’d landed right on her ass when they all tumbled down.)

After she accidentally let go of her bat during softball tryouts and it spun across the field only to knock some poor football player out cold, Lexi was due for a much-needed break. She wandered over to Knucker, dropped to her knees, and face-planted right into the grass.

“Uuuggnnhhh. Everything is going SO WROOOOOONG. Did you see that guy? What are the chances..!” Her wailing was somewhat muffled by the lawn. “This is the worst.”


“You can’t expect to be good at everything you try,” Knucker pointed out, ignoring that she’d so far been good at none of them. “You’ll find your niche eventually. I mean come on, you’ve never even played softball before.”

He’d tried to get her to practice over the summer, after they (read: Lexi) had gotten the idea for the Most Memorable Senior Year ever. But somehow it had just ended with Lexi chasing him around his backyard with a bat.

Knucker scooted over, putting one hand on her shoulder and using the other to pick grass from the field and tie it into knots. Maybe his touch would be reassuring somehow. He hoped it was.

“I found this a couple minutes ago,” he said, tucking a broken-off stem of clover behind her ear. Unlike the rest of the patch he’d been sitting in, it bore four distinct leaves. Sure, it was a simple genetic mutation and occurred once in every 10,000 clovers—which wasn’t that rare in the scope of things, really—but maybe if Lexi believed in it, she’d believe in herself. Like Knucker believed in her. “And I’m a redhead, so… maybe it’s close enough to luck of the Irish?”


“Don’t let Margrit hear you say that, she’ll start calling you a leprechaun again.” Lexi didn’t need to be good at everything. She didn’t even need to be kind of okay at everything. She just needed ONE thing. One thing that she was really, truly good at. …And so far, the one thing she was good at was injuring herself and everyone around her.

Knucker made it really hard for her to feel sorry for herself though. He had to go and be a million times smarter than her, and always pull out the exact right thing to say. Her method of solving problems was usually to kick them until they surrendered.

Sighing heavily, she shifted on to her elbows and plucked the clover from behind her ear. She turned it around and around in her fingers, staring up at the overcast sky.

“I could use some luck. I think my rabies is throwing off my game.” Lexi finally sat up, crossing her legs in front of her on the grass and reaching up to undo her hair from its sloppy bun. She made quick work of tying the clover up into a small pleat, then twisted the braid back onto her head again.

“What’s next on Lexi Humiliates Herself Week? I’m NOT bothering with rugby. I’ve had enough of balls in my face. What doesn’t involve balls? Swimming? Track? Color Guard?”


“Track is still going on.”

Lexi had eaten so much earlier that she’d probably cramp up if she tried to swim, and Knucker had heard bad things about Color Guard ever since Julian Hollinger had dropped out; they all acted like mini-Margrits now. Track was a much safer bet.

On the plus side, Lexi had more than enough energy to run in circles all day.

On the minus side…

Knucker side-eyed the track from across the field. In the distance, Owen DeWhitt was barking orders at his team.

“…Maybe you should just join the drama club?”


Lexi made a face. Drama club was filled with a bunch of really WEIRD people who pranced around quoting things like Monty Python and being, well… dramatic. Lexi was dramatic enough without a club to help her do it better.

“Track it is. At least I can’t hurt anybody while running.” Lexi pushed herself up off the grass, dusting off broken blades and bits of dirt from her shorts. She reached down to grab Knucker’s hands and pull him up to his feet too. Then she was dragging him across the green to be her own personal cheerleader.

She didn’t let him go until they were by the bleachers next to the track. Lexi had to bounce a bit on her feet to build up her courage. But ONLY because Owen DeWhitt was Margrit’s current boy-toy, and if she massively failed at running he was going to be overjoyed to spread that juicy piece of news. That redheaded hellhound had already gotten enough ammunition today to last through the rest of the school year.

Straightening her arms and putting on her war face, Lexi stomped forward.

“I’M TRYING OUT.” She didn’t really know why she felt the need to bark that announcement at the top of her lungs, but it got everyone’s attention. GOOD.

Yeah, she definitely had their attention. Some of the other hopeful kids (mostly freshmen) had paused mid-stretch in all kinds of goofy poses. One boy had his knee up to his chest; he hopped in place a couple of times before finally bringing his foot back down to earth.

They were all staring at her. Immediately she regretted being so loud, and for a brief moment she was second-guessing this whole “senior year with a bang” thing. Who was she kidding, anyway? Lexi sucked at everything. She and Knucker were the kids in the corner, and life had always been pretty good in that corner.

They couldn’t just spend their lives together in the corner forever, though.


“Sure that’s a good idea, Ryan?” Owen asked after a brief pause, voice gruff—albeit not nearly as antagonistic as it usually was when he was passing Lexi in the halls. He was looking at her almost warily, his eyes measuring her footing on the grass like he expected her to suddenly keel over. “You bled all over the woods last night.”

“If she doesn’t die, tell her she owes me for ruining my clothes.” A snippet of half-forgotten conversation came floating back to Lexi.


“Girls bleed ALL THE TIME. I’m used to it, DeWhitt.” Oh god. Did she just make a crack about her period? She might as well have said Fight me, Bro! It might actually have sounded cooler.

“I mean—” Lexi fumbled for the right words. If she said the wrong thing here, she was going to sound even more stupid. “I’m standing here, right? If I can out-run a bearwolf with my arm ripped halfway off, I can definitely do this…”

Great, now she didn’t sound like she was sure of herself at all. Good thing she’d been spending all day trying out for things. If her face was red, she could just pass it off as exertion. Or maybe the smudges of dirt would cover it up.

Lexi threw her arms skyward in exasperation at herself.

“What do you want me to do? Run in a circle? Jump over sticks?” She clearly had NO idea how the track team worked.


“Get in line,” he barked at her, putting his hands on his hips. His tone and stance were all… bossy. Absolutely assured she’d obey. And his eyes were doing that squinty thing that somehow made him look three times taller. (How did that even work?) “And warm up. You’re not the only one trying out today and you’re wasting their time.”

He was already turning away from her, pointing at the kid who’d been doing a one-legged chicken dance a minute ago. With his other hand, he pulled a stopwatch out of his pocket.

“You’re up,” he told the boy. This kid was definitely a freshman, with feet too big for his scrawny body and knobby-kneed chicken legs sticking out of his gym shorts. Owen looked even less impressed with him than he did with Lexi. “Sprint. Go up to the 60 meter mark—”

He pointed down the track to a white line.

“—and then stop. Let’s see if you’re gonna be wasting our time too.”


Lexi stood there staring stupidly at his back for a moment, one hand slowly raising to give him a soldier’s salute since he was shouting orders like some sort of war general. (Of course, she’d never have dared to do that to his face. Owen might not be the type to hit a girl, but he had no problems tossing one into the nearest pile of gross stuff.)

She looked back over her shoulder to give Knucker a big toothy grin and two thumbs up, then bounced over to mimic what some of the other hopefuls were doing. An arm stretch here, a bit of ankle rotation there.

Most of these kids were shorter than her, so she could probably out-run them, right? She had this.

Of course, two seconds later there was an earthquake. ..Okay, maybe it was just her center of gravity dipping out. Or even the RABIES. Either way, Lexi’s ass hit the dirt when she lost her balance. Only through sheer quick-thinking (and a little luck) was she able to play it off as plopping down on purpose to do some leg stretches. She whistled innocently, which she realized belatedly was kind of dumb—and likely something she’d picked up from Knucker.


“Nervous?” a voice chimed in from Lexi’s left. “Me too.”

The speaker was a boy with curly red hair—really red hair, not ginger like Margrit’s or Knucker’s, and not Lexi’s darker brownish-red—starkly green eyes, and a friendly grin. He was leaning over to touch his toes and looking perfectly at ease doing it as he shifted closer to Lexi across the grass. Out of all the kids on the field, he was the only one who could pass for Lexi’s own age. The muscles in his arms and legs looked like he did a lot more in the sports department than Lexi had done in her whole life, that was for sure. But he wasn’t one of the track team guys.

She’d never seen him before in her life.

“You seem, uh… friendly? With the captain there.” He nodded at Owen’s turned back. “Ex-boyfriend? Should we team up to kick his ass?”


“Ex-boyfriend?” Lexi’s nose wrinkled up as she repeated the word with as much disgust and horror as could possibly be packed into a single word. Her eyes made the slow trek across the field to bore holes in Owen’s turned back. Lexi had exactly zero ex-boyfriends—but even if she did have one, Owen would be the last guy on the planet she’d pick for that role.

“Owen hates me,” she finally explained, tearing her gaze from the captain to peer awkwardly at this new guy. He was DEFINITELY new. Which meant that not only did she feel weird having a conversation with someone who wasn’t Knucker, there was the added bonus of having no idea what to expect from him.

Just one more reason why she NEEDED to climb the social ladder at Silent Pines High School.

At least he offered to beat up Owen with her. That was an automatic point in her book.

“I’m all for kicking his ass. …AFTER we see if I botch running in a circle. I kinda need to make this team.” Lexi gave up trying to pretend that she knew how to stretch, choosing instead to lean backwards on her hands and frown at her traitorous feet.


“’Need to’?” he echoed, tilting his head. After a moment, though, he laughed and gave her an encouraging smile. Lexi received a playful shove to her shoulder. “You’ll be fine. Most of the people trying out are total freshies and still growing into all their awkward limbs.”

As if to prove his point, the girl currently under Owen’s supervisory glare tripped over her own shoelaces and went down face-first on the track.

“Trust me! I know what I’m talking about,” New Guy continued. “If you don’t make the team, I’ll buy you a soda. Your choice.”

“Cooney, you’re up!” Owen barked, looking up from his clipboard to glower in their direction. New Guy jumped to his feet.

“Sir yessir!” he joked, winking at Lexi, and trotted over toward the starting line.


Free soda, yeeees! If she DID make the team, this meant she had an ally.

With a sudden start, she bent forward to make sure her shoelaces were tied good and tight. Lexi added a couple more knots just to make sure. If she was going to be humiliated, it wouldn’t be because she landed face-first on the asphalt and had herself an appetizer course of ROCKS. When the girl who had fallen hobbled past with the support of her friends, Lexi gave her a pitying look.


Meanwhile, Lexi’s newfound ally was gearing up for his sprint.

“60 meter dash, yeah?” he confirmed, planting his feet on the line. He was talking to Owen, but his eyes were on the track ahead. Unlike the freshies, he looked pretty relaxed about all this. He was even smiling.

“That’s right,” Owen grunted. The track team captain lifted his stopwatch, eyeing New Guy—Cooney?—in what was probably some kind of weird jock cavedude sizing-up thing. “On my mark… and time!

New Guy grinned.

And then he was off like a shot, moving so fast he almost became a blur. He was crossing the meter marker well before Lexi could count to ten. As he did so, he turned around and jogged backwards for a few extra feet.

He made it all look like a breeze. Not that the freshmen hadn’t too with their bumbling and falling all over the place, but Lexi was pretty sure her skill-set leaned more towards theirs than this dude and his pro running. Running like a pro? Was that even a real thing? That nonplussed look crept onto her face again, nose scrunching up and mouth twisting. Lexi was about to receive her award for Stupidest Runner.

“How’d I do, captain?” New Guy yelled cheerfully.

“…3.9,” Owen called out, taking just a second too long to answer. One of the other track team members let out a low whistle. “Get your ass over here, Cooney.”

Unperturbed, the boy trotted back over. Owen immediately launched into a hushed conversation, but Lexi caught most of it:

“Don’t bullshit me. You’ve done this before.”

“Yup. Track team since middle school.”

“You should’ve said as much.”

“I wanted to get in fair and square. Everyone else had to try out. Besides, you’d have wanted to see me actually run anyway, right?”

“Fine. But no more showing off, got it? I’m not going to tolerate that kind of…”

When all was said and done, New Guy made his way back to Lexi. He looked like he had something to say, but he never got the chance.

“Ryan,” boomed Owen. Oh man, he sounded pissed. “Are you still here? It’s your turn.”


PLOP!

Silvia dropped to her knees next to Knucker on the bleacher, still wearing her Devils cheerleader uniform and carrying her red-and-white pompoms. Her hair was twisted up in a perfect ponytail and tied with a red ribbon. She wasn’t looking at Knucker at all; she was staring determinedly out at the track, wiggling in her seat even though being on her knees had to make all that moving around uncomfortable.

“YAY OWEN!! MAKE THEM CRY!” she squealed, waving her pompoms at the blond boy when he lifted his head to see what all the noise was about. It looked like he wasn’t pleased to see her, though it was hard to tell. “Angry” was kind of Owen’s default expression.

As soon as Owen’s attention was back on the tryouts, Silvia leaned towards Knucker.

“Has Lexi come up yet? Margrit wanted me to spy and tell her how badly she fails. But don’t tell Margrit I sat down to talk to you!” she stage-whispered out of the side of her mouth. At least… it sounded like a stage whisper, but she also genuinely seemed to think that no one around them could hear. The girl in the row behind her was staring.


Knucker had been pretty preoccupied with keeping an eye on Lexi. He didn’t really notice Silvia until she was, uh, cheering right beside him. Which was why he jumped. He may also have been a little startled because Silvia Whelan was talking to him and holy shit smokes what, why?!

“Uh,” he began intelligently. “No.”

Knucker was not a conversationalist. He didn’t really know how to talk to people who weren’t Lexi or his dad or a teacher. And even then he wasn’t that great. Talking to people left him feeling very much out of his element.

Especially when a popular (granted, younger than him) girl was apparently defying Margrit Berkshire to talk to him. For some reason.

“…Why are you talking to me?” he blurted, before he could stop himself. The lack of sleep was seriously getting to him, apparently, because normally he would’ve just sat there wondering in utter silence until she lost interest and went away. Because that was the sane thing to do.


“Wow, he’s fast AND cuuuute.” For a moment it seemed Silvia didn’t even hear his question. She was staring wide-eyed at the track, where some guy Knucker didn’t recognize was having an argument with Owen. But something must have finally registered because after a beat she shrugged her shoulders and tilted her head with a thoughtful expression. “I didn’t want to bother Owen while he’s running the tryouts. He’s SUPER serious and needs all the concentration he can get. There’s a lot of pressure when you’re a team leader. I guess I could have asked Lexi herself, but she’s doing the worst and I think maybe she’s super nervous and if I ask her I might jinx it. Which would be BAD because I think she’ll really like being on track because you get to RUN ALL DAY. I would have joined track too, but I am learning so much more on the cheerleading squad with Margrit. You were sitting by yourself and have been watching the whole time, I bet, so you were the perfect person to ask!”

The words went a mile a minute. Knucker couldn’t be sure she’d even stopped to catch a breath.

“Ryan!”

At the sound of Lexi’s last name, her pompoms went up in the air again with a furious shake. This time without a cheer.


“Crap,” Knucker swore. (That counted as swearing for him, okay?) It looked like Owen was up to his usual Jerkwad tricks with Lexi. The guy was unpleasant (a douchebag) in general, but the way he treated Lexi—and Knucker—was a whole different ballgame.

Knucker sometimes (okay, maybe often) wished he didn’t have noodle arms that prevented him from throwing a proper punch.

“‘Serious’ is a word for it, I guess,” he muttered. It didn’t matter in Knucker’s book how much pressure the guy was under; it was no excuse for the way he treated people.

He glanced over at Silvia, his eyebrows furrowing. Unlike her friends, Silvia didn’t seem to have it out for Lexi. She was even waving her pompoms in support. And she was being kind of sort of friendly to him too. Was that allowed? This was high school.

The way she’d been staring at them in the cafeteria earlier came back to him, and for a minute he considered asking her what the heck that had been about. He almost did it.

But then his Lexi Sense started tingling and he whipped his head back around, just in time for Owen to give Lexi her starting signal.

Crap!


Owen bellowing her name had Lexi leaping to her feet with a start.

“HERE!” She swatted dust and bits of pebble off of her clothes, eyeing the new guy again. All she had to do was do EXACTLY what he did. That would be a piece of cake, right?

Lexi took way longer than she should have to get on her mark, knowing full well that she was trying Owen’s patience. That wasn’t really on purpose though. Mostly she was just trying to dig up the last remaining bits of her courage and dignity so that she could end her day of unending failure with one more attempt at glory. Antagonizing Owen was just a bonus.

“So… to that spot over there, right?” She gestured down the track.


“The one everyone is running to? Yes.” Owen gave her a look that probably made the freshmen pee their pants. He took a step forward, ducking his head down and sticking his face uncomfortably close to hers.

“You’d better not be wasting my time,” he told Lexi, eyes narrowed. “Are you up for this or not? Because if you don’t think you can make this team today, you should walk off the field right now.”

He wasn’t exactly being nice, but this might have made a record for the longest Owen DeWhitt had ever talked to her without calling her names or giving her a swirly.

“If you’re going to run, do it. Now,” he added, and pushed the stopwatch button without warning.


Oh Jesus son-of-Mary Christ. Owen was almost as intimidating as Margrit. (Margrit still eked out ahead, if only because with Owen you knew what sort of physical violence would be coming whereas Margrit used all the cunning of SATAN to make you miserable). Lexi nearly turned around and took off running away from the track. A tiny voice at the back of her mind nearly summoned up a really badass comeback for him, but all of a sudden there was the click of a stopwatch and him saying Now and it all went straight out of her head.

“What—EEEEE!” Despite the wild flailing of panicked arms and squealing like an idiot, Lexi took off like a bolt. There wasn’t a lot that could go wrong with running, it turned out, and to her joy and surprise it really DID feel easy and effortless!

Maybe even a little too effortless, because she over shot the line in an instant. By the time she realized it, she also realized that she had no idea how to STOP. Lexi skidded on the asphalt just at the first bend of the track, her arms windmilling in an attempt to preserve her balance. Gravity inevitably won the fight and she went rolling right off the track and into the grass.

At least she didn’t eat rocks.

“I’M OKAY.” She lifted her thumb up in the air over her head as she shunted herself onto her back.

“I knew she smelled funny,” Silvia mumbled in awe. In an instant she was up on her feet and dashing away. Before she got too far, she turned around to bounce excitedly and squeal at Knucker. “We’re going to be friends now! …Just don’t tell Margrit yet! I don’t want you to die before we have any fun.”

Silvia skipped away with a flounce and one last swish of her pompoms before Knucker could ask what any of that was all about.

But then again, Knucker had other things on his mind.


“Lexi!” Knucker was already scrambling down off the bleachers, undeterred by his best friend’s claim that she was fine. (He’d long since learned to stop taking her word about that kind of thing.) He was surprised (and a little annoyed) to find that Owen was headed over too.

The track team captain got there first.

“Ryan, I swear to god I am not peeling your ass off the ground one more time,” Owen growled, reaching down to take Lexi by the arm and haul her vertical. Knucker scooted in to take over supporting her the moment that he caught up to them, and was happy to note that Owen immediately backed off.

“Lexi, are you sure you’re okay?” Knucker pressed, checking her over for scrapes and bruises in a way he was (way, way too) used to from their long years of friendship.

Owen, evidently, was less concerned with her well-being than he was with other stuff. Stuff Knucker hadn’t yet started to process, to be honest.

“What was that?!” the jock blurted, waving the stopwatch at Lexi like she’d broken it and he was demanding compensation for damages. “What—You need to learn to stop, dumbass!”

It was about then that Knucker actually got a good look at Lexi’s time. Knucker knew (from reading online, because he’d wanted to be prepared for tryouts, okay?) that with the 60 meters, it was actually supposed to time how fast you could run 30. The person timing stopped and started again at the halfway point, and then averaged the two times together. So Lexi’s official time wouldn’t be the exact time that was currently on the watch readout.

But the watch read 3.57 and hooooooly guacamole, how was that even a thing? Knucker almost dropped her out of shock.


You need to learn to stop!” Lexi blurted reflexively. Aside from her not-so-soft landing in the grass, she couldn’t figure out why the hell they were making such a big deal about it. She’d crashed on one body part or another all afternoon, this was pretty much the natural order of things at this point.

It finally dawned on her that they were having PTSD-style flashbacks from last night and her face went a bit crimson. She was FINE. …Not counting the rabies. Were they going to freak out about it FOREVER?

Lexi swatted at Knucker. He was being way too mothering. …Until he looked like he’d swallowed a bumble bee and stopped short. She followed his eyes and grabbed Owen’s hand to keep the stopwatch still so that she could read the numbers.

“So, this is good, right? Maybe?” She nudged Knucker’s shoulder, partly to shake him out of his stunned silence but mostly because he’d know the answer. Lexi didn’t trust Owen not to sabotage her chances in the name of Margrit’s demonic love.


“It’s like Olympic good,” Knucker answered, staring back and forth between the numbers and Lexi’s hopeful face. She’d never exactly been slow, but he’d never known she could run like that. Almost no one their age could run like that.

Owen DeWhitt couldn’t run like that.

As soon as he thought it, Knucker cast a wary glance at the other boy.

And yeah, Owen did not seem happy. The guy looked like he might punch Lexi out, and for a moment Knucker was ready to step in the way so Lexi didn’t get knocked around for the third time in less than 24 hours. But instead Owen was slapping Lexi on the shoulder (not the one where she’d been bitten, Knucker noticed) and shoving her back off the track.

“You need to learn to stop and to shut up if you want to be on the team,” Owen grumbled. “Go home. You’ll get the results tomorrow with everyone else.”


Lexi’s mouth pursed—and unlike the five-thousand-and-one different sour expressions she usually gave Owen, this was the exact opposite: a pleased as pie, cat-ate-canary, unusually pointy-toothed grin as she struggled to hold back the kind of sassy, smart-assed remark which would probably get her punched right in the face.

That wasn’t a no. That was practically a yes!

“Heeeee.” She couldn’t quite swallow the smug laugh. Lexi grabbed Knucker by the shoulders, twisting him around so she could properly shove. It was time to get the hell out while the getting was good.

The farther out of earshot they got, the more her giggling veered into evil villain territory until it was downright maniacal. Once they got through the big double doors and into the gym, though, she subsided back to normal (if overly-excited) snickering.

She also couldn’t fucking stop bouncing. Lexi still had a hold of Knucker’s arm as she jumped up and down.

“That wasn’t a no! It’s probably a yes! Margrit can KISS MY ASS. Even if I suck at stopping, I’m still on the team! Holy shit, I still have detention and rabies but I don’t caa-aaare!”


“Jesus, Lex, don’t tug so hard,” Knucker told her, wincing a little. He didn’t try to free his arm though. She’d let go eventually, once she calmed down.

If she ever calmed down. Knucker was pretty sure rabies didn’t make you better at sports, so maybe this was something else. But at least she’d perked up again.

“I’m really happy for you.” It was true. Mostly. Knucker couldn’t help but feel a small pang when it occurred to him that this was actually happening and Lexi was actually going to be at after-school practices and track meets and Knucker was going to be… on the sidelines. Not right there with her. “…I told you that you could do it, didn’t I?”

He still wasn’t sure how she did it. But that wasn’t really the point.

Maybe the explanation was simply that Lexi was just amazing.

He’d always kind of thought that anyway.


Lexi finally let go of his arm only to pump her fists in the air. Her victory bouncing continued as she danced in a wide circle around him. She didn’t know where all the energy was coming from but at that moment she didn’t care.

“Phase Two: Infiltrate Sports has been completed! …As good as, anyway. You’re the best lucky charm! And going to have to tell me everything you know about track because I have NO idea what I’m doing.” THAT realization got her to stop bouncing. Her cheeks were flushed, but she wasn’t even close to being out of breath. Lexi rested her hands on her hips, a small frown on her face as she surveyed her best friend. The Best Senior Year Ever was supposed to be about both of them tackling everything in one last hoorah. Now her plans were only halfway on track. Not to mention, now he wasn’t going to be there where she monumentally fucked up.

“It would have been even better if you tried out too. You usually out-run me,” she admitted. “Maybe we can sneak you in later. You’re going to be there all the time anyway, I bet Owen won’t even notice.”


I’m pretty sure he would definitely notice.

“Maybe,” he told her anyway, giving her a half-smile. Knucker knew he couldn’t beat Lexi’s time from today, and he doubted anything less could convince Owen DeWhitt to let him onto the track team. But he wasn’t about to burst Lexi’s bubble. “You know I’ll be there anyway.”

It was Knucker’s turn to frown.

“You have to go to detention now, right?” It was technically after school now, wasn’t it? “…I’ll wait for you in the parking lot. We still need to go find your phone.”


“Uuuuuggh, yeeeeah.” She groaned again just for good measure. She knew she totally deserved detention, but this was going to be the most agonizingly awkward detention in the history of all detentions. “Why did I have to open my stupid mouth?”

Lexi ruffled up Knucker’s hair in parting (it drove him nuts, which always cheered her up) and dragged her feet down the hall to the girl’s locker room. Hopefully she could get in and out without another run-in with the Queen Bitch.


When she reached the doors, Lexi peeked her head in and warily glanced around. Once she was positive that the place was Margrit-free, she slipped inside and tip-toed over to the small locker where she’d shoved her backpack earlier.

Her over-active sense of smell kicked in again, her nose twitching as it was assaulted by a myriad of scents. Sweat, perfume, gym socks, girl.

The last time Lexi had actively used the girls’ locker room was in 9th grade for her mandatory P.E. class, and she was just as uncomfortable now as she’d been back then. Some girls could just stroll down the aisles buck-ass-naked without even a speck of insecurity, but… Lexi just wasn’t LIKE that. When she’d changed into her gym clothes before tryouts, she’d been in and out in ten seconds without so much as flashing her bra.

Now that the activities on the field were winding down, there were several girls at the tail end of their showering rituals and a few more in various stages of undress. Lexi kept her eyes averted from anyone showing too much skin while her inner voice did a really good impression of Margrit.

Wow, what are you, a ten year old nun-child? They’re BOOBS. You have them too!

“Mrrglph,” was her strangled response to her own thoughts.

She HAD to get over this, especially since Lexi herself was now covered head to toe in grass, dirt, and sweat. As tempted as she was to just throw on her clothes and bolt, she didn’t want to go sit in detention smelling like… well. Like a locker room.

After eyeballing the perimeter one last time for telltale red curls, Lexi hastily stripped down and wrapped herself up in a towel. With a level of finesse even James Bond would envy, she stealthily lurked her way past each row of lockers until she reached the showers. Grateful to find the area had emptied out, Lexi made a mad dash into the stall that looked the least dangerous. There was enough open space where she could take off running if Margrit decided the most humiliating time to murder her would be while she was naked, but not so much that Lexi felt exposed.

Once she had the hot water going, she relaxed a little bit. Standing directly under the stream, she twisted to get a good look at her bad shoulder.

Nothing.

There wasn’t even a SCAR anymore. Great. Not only did she almost die, now no one was going to even believe it happened. Aside from Margrit’s ruined car and Lexi’s shredded clothes, the evidence was gone overnight.

At least Knucker knew she wasn’t crazy.


She only got a few precious moments to herself before a heavy thud issued from a couple of stalls down and across the aisle. It sounded like someone had dropped something.

When Lexi looked up out of reflex, there was a heavy-looking olive green canvas bag sitting just outside the stall; that hadn’t been there before. Maybe that explained the noise. It must have been a student’s backpack, but it looked a lot like an army rucksack.

Movement inside the stall drew her eye, and she glimpsed a long brown ponytail before the other girl’s hands rose to pull her hair free of its tie. As her chestnut-colored hair spilled down over bare shoulders, she seemed to sense that Lexi was watching; she stiffened up and glanced behind herself.

All Lexi had really meant to do was shoot a quick look over her shoulder to make sure it wasn’t Margrit (or one of Margrit’s henchbitches). But it was hard to recognize someone by the back of their head and bare naked skin, so she might have spent a little too long squinting over at the other stall. Lexi definitely hadn’t expected to be caught staring.

“Hi,” the girl drawled. Her voice dripped with just a hint of an accent that Lexi couldn’t quite place.


Oh, fuck, was she still gawking? She probably looked like a deranged creeper. Lexi gave a little start and quickly refocused her gaze to the shower knob.

“Hellooooo,” she echoed in response. …And that greeting didn’t help matters. Instead of the nonchalant, breezy tone that Lexi had been going for, it came out like some kind of sleazy proposition. In her mind’s eye, Knucker was cringing.

Crap, now what? Were you supposed to have shower-time banter? What was proper locker room etiquette anyway? Lexi had never actually used the showers before today. Freshman P.E. had been her last class of the day, so she’d always just changed her clothes and bolted the second her shoes were tied.

“So… tryouts. Yeeeaah.” Not the greatest save, but at least this time Lexi didn’t sound creepy. The award for today’s lamest comment still went to the line she’d given Owen about periods.


“Yeah. Tryouts,” agreed the mystery girl—and she was kind of a mystery. Something about her looked familiar, but Lexi couldn’t quite think of where she’d seen her before… Not that that meant much. If you weren’t Knucker or a mean girl, Lexi didn’t notice you. The more surprising thing was that the girl had actually answered Lexi’s dumbass comment.

The water cut on across the way. Lexi could hear shuffling and the slap of wet feet on the tile floor. Okay, maybe they weren’t going to be chatting after all.

But then…

“How’d you do?” she asked. “Think you made it?”


Lexi’s immediate sigh of relief was drowned out by when she shoved her face into the shower spray. As long as she wasn’t being called a freak or getting her head shoved in a toilet (especially while she was naked), everything was cool. Although now she looked like a crying raccoon thanks to the remnants of black eyeliner streaming down her face. Lexi grabbed her bar of soap and began to furiously scrub her cheeks and around her eyes.

“I pretty much sucked ass until I got to track. So unless Owen DeWhitt would rather die than have me on the team, I’m good. …I think.” Now that most of the energy and adrenaline had worn off, Lexi wasn’t quite as bouncy and confident. She was stuck with that same nervous, pent-up itching that had been torturing her all day.

Shit, she wasn’t all hairy again was she? Lexi ran her hands over her arms, then twisted and turned to check out her legs.

Okay, cool, paranoia’s setting in. Good to know.

She finally cast another curious peek over her shoulder.

“Did… you try out for anything?” she tested the waters of casual conversation. It was funny; she’d talked to more people today than she had since… well, Lexi didn’t even know. Aside from humiliating herself in twenty different ways, maybe her Best-Senior-Year-Ever plan was actually going to work.


“Football.”

There wasn’t a girls’ football team at Silent Pines High. There weren’t girls on the football team and never had been on any high school team in the entire state of Pennsylvania, as far as Lexi was aware.

Even if there had been, this girl didn’t look like the type of girl who played football. She wasn’t tiny or anything—actually, she was taller than Lexi, with broader shoulders to boot—but she was, well, kind of pretty. At least prettier than, say, most of the girls’ rugby team (which had earned a reputation for being made up almost entirely of hulking gargoyles).

She shot Lexi a wry look, like she knew what was on her mind.

“I don’t think they went for it, even if I did knock down a couple field goals.”


“I bet if you go back and knock down a couple of dudes too, they might change their mind,” Lexi remarked. The girl just had to turn around and catch Lexi looking again. At least this time Lexi managed to play it cool, flashing a toothy, jesting grin before she resumed washing. This wouldn’t be so awkward if she couldn’t see this girl’s ass and if Lexi weren’t self-conscious as hell. Why did anyone think these open shower rooms were a good idea?

On the bright side, Lexi was pretty much done. She shut off the faucet, then got busy wringing water out of her hair. Once she’d squeezed out all the moisture she could, she snatched up her towel and swiftly wrapped it around her body.

“But, uh, good luck, I guess? I’ll buy you a soda if you don’t make it!” The stolen phrase was out of her mouth before she could think twice, pilfered straight from the pep talk that Cooney guy had given her. Thankfully it wasn’t too weird of a thing to say. Lexi was fast realizing just how much she sucked balls at talking to people who weren’t Knucker.

Even Knucker could bullshit his way through a conversation better than this. What the hell was wrong with her?


Maybe she’d finally creeped the girl out after all, because she didn’t immediately reply. Or maybe she was just too busy shampooing her hair. She had her head tipped back away from the stream, her fingers working up a furious lather.

“…I’ll hold you to that,” she said in the end. “Thanks.”


Wait. Oh shit. Did Lexi just make a promise with some random chick? Her stomach couldn’t decide if it were twisting up in abject horror at the thought of trying to interact with someone new again, or doing somersaults over how actually kind of AWESOME it was to have done it twice in one day already.

“Okay. Cool. Coooool.” Lexi accented that utterly insightful remark by making a little okay gesture with her fingers, and was immediately glad the girl wasn’t looking this time because THAT was probably the dorkiest thing ever.

“So, uh, see ya!” she followed up quickly. Her heels squeaked on the wet tile as she spun around. She had to get out of here before she said anything else monumentally stupid.


“Sure,” she heard the girl call after, though it was a bit muffled by the sounds of the shower. “Later, Al…ligator.”

Maybe Lexi wasn’t the only one feeling awkward? Who could tell. She certainly didn’t stick around to find out.


Weirdness aside, at least she avoided another run-in with Margrit on the way back to the main building. The cheerleading squad captain must have still been tied up with directing tryouts. Or maybe even permanently injured from that fall and out of school for the rest of the year?

Lexi could dream.

She dragged her feet all the way back to Mr. Anderson’s classroom. The halls were empty; everyone else had either gone home or was out on the field, so she had only her own escalating anxiety for company. It briefly occurred to her that dicking around could add more time onto her punishment, but the dread was too strong for her to pick up the pace. Lexi felt about an inch tall by the time she eased open the door and crept over the threshold.

God, why couldn’t she turn invisible? Hopefully someone else had been a bigger asshole today than she had, and she could walk out of here without a strongly worded letter to her dad.


Unfortunately, this was where her borrowed Knucker-luck wore out. She was the only kid in the room.

We have officially hit nightmare mode.

“Ms. Ryan,” Mr. Anderson acknowledged Lexi as she slunk into her seat. “I’m glad you could make it.”

The teacher was at his desk, rummaging through a drawer. He pulled out a heavy, faded book and flipped through a few pages before he finally glanced up. Ugh. Everything about the guy was weird and wrong. He was too young. He had dorky glasses. And here he was reading a book that looked like it came from HOGWARTS. Lexi once again had an overwhelming urge to say something REALLY STUPID, but at least this time she managed to keep it to herself.

Instead she slid a little lower in her seat, giving the sea of empty desks a pitiful stare. Why was she the only one here? Her gaze drifted to the windows. Maybe she could just jump out…

“I heard you were out on the field at tryouts,” he remarked over Lexi’s inner turmoil. Sometime between this morning’s fiasco and the end of the day, he’d lost that “young, cool guy” vibe and settled into something much more… teacherly. “How’d you do?”

Huh. Deja vu.


“Uh… I only sort of made an ass—UH, jerk of myself during track. Results aren’t posted until tomorrow though.”


“Track?” He grinned a little, one eyebrow quirking. “Well, I hope you make it. Track’s a good sport.”

Mr. Anderson stood up, then, and moved to the desk in front of Lexi. He plopped down into it—still holding that mouldy, ancient-looking book—and propped his elbows on the faux-wood.

“Look,” he said. “I think we got off on the wrong foot this morning. We all make mistakes. But you’re going to be in my homeroom all year, Lexi. I need you to respect me or it’s going to be a problem. And I really don’t want to have a problem with a student right off the bat.”

His tone was friendly, but had this undercurrent of firmness to it which made it clear she would be getting waaaay less slack about this later if she didn’t cooperate now.


Lexi didn’t like that at all.

Apparently a guilt-ridden morning and an afternoon of running and beating whatever out of her system hadn’t worked in the slightest. Something about this guy just rubbed her the wrong way, and even though he was being perfectly polite and actually really cool for a teacher, Lexi wanted to flip her desk and tell him to shove it. To tackle him and bite him real good.

Holy shit, I’m a psycho!

This was NOT COOL. She was not going to tackle and bite a teacher, what kind of rabies-infested monster was she turning into? Antsy, Lexi tapped her fingernails on the desktop… and then paused to look down at them with a frown. Had her nails been that long earlier? They were in dire need of a trim.

She straightened in her seat and stuffed her hands inside her desk.

“I’m sorry,” she forced out the words. “I’m having… problems.”

Ugh, that sounded like she was talking about her period again. Lexi WISHED she was PMSing; maybe that would explain why rolling on the floor and sinking her teeth into her newest teacher seemed like such a fun idea.

OH MY GOD. STOP THINKING ABOUT IT.


Maybe it was her imagination, but it felt like he drew back a little too, giving her more room to breathe. But he was still sitting right there and hadn’t moved… Lexi really was losing it.

“You had a rough night last night, as I’ve been informed,” he allowed, giving her a quick once-over and tilting his head. “If you ever want to talk about it—about anything—feel free to talk to me. I know I’m not your friend, but I’ve been told I do okay at listening, and it’s my job to help you succeed.”


“Is EVERYONE talking about it?! Uuugh,” she groaned. All of the fight and fire melted out of her and Lexi’s limbs became limp floppy noodles as she turned to dead weight in her chair. Not only was the entire student body talking about her (and not the way she WANTED them to), apparently all the faculty were in on the gossip too. Didn’t teachers have something better to talk about? Like lesson plans, or taxes? She tooootally wanted to talk about her first epic failure of the year with a teacher. One that looked barely twenty but could still send her to the principal if she said “fuck” out loud.

She couldn’t spend the entire school year feeling awkward and wanting to kill a teacher. Lexi sat back up, giving him a sort of sideways stare.

“Okay. Purely for a hypothetical situation, what if I said I think I might have rabies and all of this,” she gestured her hands, completely unable to put her feelings about him into words, “makes me want to throw something at you.”

She made sure not to say BITE AND MURDER because that was a quick way to get sent to the school counselor.

“And it’s not really YOU, I guess, but like, today has just sucked all day and all I really wanted to do this year was take over the school with my best friend and make my mortal enemy cry. So I will take your teacherly advice into consideration. Let’s hear it,” she mumbled. It was kind of hard to keep the snark out of her voice, but at least now she was trying and genuinely interested in seeing how this experiment would turn out. It wasn’t as if she could embarrass herself any further today than she had already. Maybe an ally from the teaching staff could make it easier to achieve her plans for school domination.


“Okay,” said Mr. Anderson, drumming his fingers on his desk. “Purely hypothetically, I’d say that you’re not the only one who feels like that sometimes. I’d say you just need to learn to channel that in a way that isn’t going to get you in trouble. Track isn’t a bad start, as far as that goes, so you’re headed in a good direction. Don’t let one bad day get you down.”

He slid that old book onto the desk in front of her. It was a grey-green color, with little pictographs of dogs pulling sleds on the front. Gilded, curling letters spelled out the title and byline: “The Call of the Wild by Jack London”. A bit of thread was poking out of the top of the spine.

“I think you might like this,” he told her. “It’s kind of about how the main character survives against all odds and becomes top dog. You have to promise you’ll give it back in one piece though. Can I trust you?”


Lexi didn’t know what she was expecting. This was pretty much the textbook after-school special advice from a nerdy teacher. He wanted respect or whatever, but he was clearly a huge dork. Somehow that softened her impression of him—and even though it was super lame, it was maybe KIND OF cool that he was trying so hard. Lexi still had a hard time taking him seriously, but at least now she didn’t want to bite him or throw a desk.

The look on her face betrayed her less-than-kind thoughts, though, and it probably didn’t help that her smile was threatening to turn into a laugh. Lexi just barely kept that in check.

“You definitely CAN’T trust me. But I promise I’ll try to bring it back without destroying it.” She pulled the book closer, giving the cover and the first few pages a curious examination. Reading was not her thing—that was all Knucker. But Lexi supposed she’d HAVE to read it, just in case he decided to give her some weird pop quiz.


To his credit, Mr. Anderson didn’t look too surprised at her response. He gave her a rueful, at-least-we’re-both-trying smile and climbed up out of his chair.

“I think we’re all good for now, Ms. Ryan. I’ll see you tomorrow morning. I know you probably won’t get any reading done tonight, but let me know what you think of the book when you get a chance.”

And just like that, Lexi was free to go.


Devil’s Wood looked a lot less spooky in the daylight.

Not that the sun would last for long. Lexi and Knucker had only a small window of opportunity to retrace her fearful dash of the night before and find her phone. Her dad expected her home in time for dinner WITH phone in hand… otherwise Lexi was going to have to work her ass off to pay for a new one. Just because I own a gas station, it doesn’t mean I’m made of money. Her dad had repeated that saying so many times that Lexi was entertaining the idea of running away from home if she didn’t find the damn thing.


“We’re getting close to where the party was,” Knucker commented. He’d just nearly tripped over a crushed red solo cup that was half-hidden by the leaves. He nudged it with his toe—and after a moment’s hesitation picked it up, because as gross as it might be he also really didn’t like littering. If he didn’t pick it up now, it was a pretty sure bet that no one else would.


“I think I took off this way,” she grunted, pointing up ahead of them. “Maybe that thing will come back and finish me off so we’ll know for sure.”

She kind of regretted it after she said it. Lexi was instantly on alert, looking up and around warily to make sure nothing was lurking in the bushes or in the trees.

“Ugh, it’s probably out of battery too, or this would be a million times easier. We could just call it!”


“Do you want me to try calling it anyway?” he offered, fishing his own phone out of his jacket pocket.

He hoped it would work, because Knucker really did not want to be out here. It was going to get dark soon and there was a mysterious animal with a taste for people roaming the woods and he was a little weirded out by this whole ordeal. Their teacher was no exception. Something about the guy creeped Knucker out. Lexi had told him about her (surprisingly brief) detention in excruciating detail, and while her fears seemed to have been allayed, he wasn’t so sure. Maybe it was the fact that when Lexi had shown him that book, well… Knucker hadn’t had the heart to tell her but he recognized it as a first freaking edition and what kind of person gave that to someone they’ve just met?

…Okay, maybe Knucker was also a little jealous. He was sure he could convince Lexi to let him borrow it though. Mr. Anderson didn’t have to know.


“Hnnng. Yeah, try calling it. Maybe we’ll get lucky. …Man, there’s no way I had it in my hands this close to the party. We better trek back that way.” She gestured again in a totally different direction. Honestly she didn’t have a clue which way was the best to look. Lexi couldn’t remember if she ran in a straight line, or zig-zagged, or even went in circles. And every tree and bush looked EXACTLY the same.

Everything SMELLED really different though. Lexi rubbed her nose with the back of her hand. Half the woods must have been saturated in beer, because she could still smell it even now. That and a lot of wet dirt, along with something really flowery and sweet. And then she got a strong whiff of something dead, which nearly made her tumble face-first over a tree stump in her path. Lexi assumed it must have been carried on the wind, though, because there was nothing in sight.

Now her nose was itching and she was rubbing it even more furiously.

Wait. She spotted something blue and plastic up ahead. That might be her phone! Lexi stooped and snatched it up.

Her nose wrinkled. This was definitely not her phone.

“What is this even—” It was an odd-looking old doll in a faded blue dress. Half of its hair was missing and strange symbols had been drawn with black marker all over its little plastic arms, legs, and face. As if these woods needed more creepy things in them.

…A mischievous look crossed her features.

Lexi inched towards Knucker, dangling the doll.


Knucker’s brain was a chorus of nope, nope, nope.

“Lexi. Lexi no.” He backed up, holding out the broken red cup as if to fend her off. “Cut it out, that’s so not funny.”

Rationally, he knew it was just a doll that some weirdo kids had played some creepy game with out in the woods. But still. When you were in a place called Devil’s Wood and the sun was going down and you found a sketchy, half-destroyed old doll, you did not mess around with it.

As he stumbled over a tree root, his thumb slipped on the call button of his phone.

The distinctly dramatic chords of a Fall Out Boy song instantly blared from only a few feet away. Knucker perked up, whipping his head to face the sound. Holy crap, that actually worked!

His excitement plummeted again almost at once. A towering figure stepped out from amongst the trees; Knucker yelped and lost his balance. He crashed to the ground, crushing the plastic cup into a disc between his fingers.


Meanwhile, Lexi’s first instinct was attack the monster! …Which apparently involved making a not-so-brave noise and chucking the creepy doll at their new nemesis.

She overshot. The toy went sailing off into the distant bushes. This fortunately gave Knucker the time he needed to get a good look and realize it was just… a guy. A really intimidating, really tall guy—but just a regular guy nonetheless. There was something about him that looked sort of familiar, but Knucker couldn’t quite place it. He was maybe a couple years older than the two of them and was dressed in a worn-looking grey t-shirt and jeans and… Huh. No shoes.

What was he doing in the middle of the woods with no shoes?

He was also holding what was unmistakably Lexi’s phone. Which was still screaming “Thnks fr th Mmrs” at full blast. Knucker quickly swiped to end the call and the music halted.


Lexi mentally cursed Knucker for startling her and making them both look like total dumbasses. She moved to grab Knucker’s arm and pull him up from the ground, casting the stranger a wary look.

“Is this yours?” the newcomer’s voice growled. Holy fuuuudge was that voice deep. His eyes were fixed on Lexi as he gave the phone an impatient shake. “You’re trespassing. This is private property.”

“We were looking for my phone. Yeah, that’s mine.” She had to gesture with her chin because her hands were busy keeping a tight grip on Knucker. Not that she was scared. But if this guy turned out to be a ghost or something, she was gonna haul ass out of there with Knucker’s limp body if she had to.

“You were at the party last night.” It wasn’t a question. He stepped forward, shoving the phone at Lexi; when she didn’t move a muscle to take it, he slipped it into Knucker’s waiting hand instead.

“…You kids need to be careful,” he continued. “It’s not safe out here after dark.”

He glanced over his shoulder, lips pursing, and then back at the two of them. His arms folded over his chest.

“You’re the one who got attacked. Alexa Ryan.” Oh cool. Now random barefoot lunatics in the woods knew who she was.

“Wai—How do you know that?!” Knucker stammered, eyebrows knitting together.

“My sister told me,” snapped the stranger in reply. He eyed Knucker, clearly unimpressed. Lexi couldn’t entirely blame him. She figured his sister must obviously go to their school—but then again with the nature of her luck, the whole town was probably talking about her anyway.

“Sister? Who—”

“Go home,” the man cut Knucker off. Totally stone-faced. “Get some rest.”

What Lexi really wanted to say was screw you, we’re not kids! But, again, barefoot lunatic in the woods. Sassing a teacher got her detention. Mouthing off now to some serious-as-fuck weirdo in the middle of Devil’s Wood would probably end with the both of them being axe-murdered, and then the bearwolf that took a chunk out of her yesterday would be gnawing on their bodies.

“C’mon. Lets get out of here,” she hissed at Knucker. She was already backing away and tugging him along with her. It wasn’t until she almost steered them backwards over a log that she finally turned her back to the guy.


Well that wasn’t creepy at all, thought Knucker.

This guy gave him a serious case of the willies. For one thing, he wouldn’t stop staring. He just stood there, watching Lexi drag Knucker off, and Knucker could swear the two of them were eye-locking up until Lexi stumbled and finally turned away.

Which was also when Knucker blinked. And when he glanced back again, the dude had vanished.

“Holy cow,” he muttered, and fixed his eyes determinedly forward from that point on. The sooner they got out of the woods, the better… and Knucker didn’t want to know what might be behind him.

Categories
Setting Fire

Setting Fire 01: Once Bitten

 September 7, 2014
Just after 10 PM

Lexi peeked around the corner. At the end of the hall, she could make out the outline of a closed bedroom door and hear the faint sound of her dad’s snoring from the other side. Her old man crashed early on the weekends, leaving their family-owned gas station under the care of the latest part-timer and leaving his only daughter up to her own devices.

On any other night, that wouldn’t have been a concern. Alexa Ryan was usually a well-behaved teenage girl (outside of a few harmless shenanigans, of course). She didn’t go out to weird parties; she didn’t drink, do drugs, or even smoke. There were no obnoxious boyfriends and consequently no under-aged sex. In fact, Lexi didn’t even have friends. The one person in the world she hung out with was about as uninteresting as she was… But she had every intention of making their world a million times more exciting. Starting with tonight.

She texted Knucker before tucking away her phone in the back pocket of her jeans.

Climbing out now, meet you at the treeline.

Knucker was her best friend, probably the bestest friend anyone in the world could have. Just hanging out with each other had always been enough for both of them. But this was the last weekend of summer vacation before senior year. After this year, high school would be over and they’d be going off to college. Knucker and Lexi would be joining the world as adults and kissing their twosome goodbye. Lexi didn’t even know if she wanted to go to college. So this last year of high school couldn’t be like all the others. It had to be BIG. For the rest of her life, she was going to look back at this year and know it was the one that changed everything.

Making up her bed so it looked like she was sleeping in it, Lexi admired her handiwork for a second before she pushed open her bedroom window and climbed out of it. From there all she had to do was shimmy down off the roof and jump to the ground. She ran across the backyard and hopped over the fence, then dashed through the big meadow that stretched out behind their property until she reached the treeline of the Silent Pines Forest.

There she waited, propping her back against a tree until her impatient squirming got her sequined top stuck in the bark. Lexi let out a curse, bending and scrambling to reach behind her and delicately pry it loose without snapping any of the sequins off. The shirt was NEW. So new, the tag still existed, skillfully tucked away out of sight just in case she made some sort of fashion fuck-up and killed her reputation before it even started. Flashy tops and skinny jeans weren’t exactly Lexi’s usual wardrobe. She had even gone as far as getting some girly boots, adding a long strand of beads, and doing her make-up beyond the punk eyeliner she typically wore.

And it was all just to impress a stupid girl.

Out in the middle of the woods, Margrit Berkshire—also known as the Queen Bee of Silent Pines—was throwing an end-of-summer bonfire party. Anyone and everyone important was going to be there.

And as soon as Knucker hurried his slow ass up and joined her, they would be too.


“Crap, crap, crap!” Knucker Polk swore under his breath, hopping up and down on one foot as he tried to free himself from the fence without ripping a huge hole in his jeans. Of course, he was really thinking something more like shit, shit, shit, but growing up with a swear jar and a small-town Sheriff for your dad, well, that sorta did things to a person. Not that that was important. What was important was that he was stuck to a freaking (fucking) fence.

Lexi was going to strangle him.

Maybe some guys wouldn’t be afraid of a girl beating them up. But those guys weren’t best (well, only) friends with Lexi Ryan. Sure, Knucker was taller; he was a guy; he was probably physically stronger than she was. But that wasn’t accounting for the pure psychological element of trying to fend off the girl who’d been dragging you around since you were still wetting the bed.

Which screw you (assholes), hadn’t happened since he was six—no matter what Margrit Berkshire and Owen DeWhitt had told everyone in homeroom last year.

Speaking of Silent Pines High School’s “It Crowd”, Knucker wasn’t quite as keen on this whole crashing-their-party thing as Lexi was. Knucker and Lexi weren’t what you’d call… cool. In fact, it was pretty much the opposite. And Knucker was just fine with that, personally. Since when did they need anyone but the two of them? …Since Lexi had gotten it into her head that she needed to make a statement in her senior year, he guessed. If it had been anyone else, Knucker would have stayed out of it, but this was Lexi. There was no chance in heck (Hell) that he wasn’t going to be right there with her every step of the way.

Even if it meant making a complete doofus of himself at this party. Which was probably what was going to happen. He hadn’t even gotten there and he’d already stumbled his way into a bully’s wet dream.

…Man, he really hated the way his brain chose to phrase things sometimes.

One last determined jerk of his leg and—with a slow-dawning horror—he heard the denim peel apart with a ripping noise straight out of a freaking (fucking, again) cartoon. Awesome.

Welp. This is why they invented cell phones. Ruefully, he skimmed the text that Lexi had sent while he’d been playing Fence Hopscotch and fired one back.

Sorry Lexi Im a little stuck, where are you now?


Waiting by that mangled oak tree. Stuck WHERE?

Lexi could imagine a hundred and one different places Knucker might be stuck. He could have meant figuratively, like if his dad were awake and lurking. Or maybe he ran into someone on the way to meet her. …But Lexi got the feeling he meant literally stuck, which had her imagination coming up with some pretty interesting predicaments.

Lemme rephrase, stuck IN what? If there’s bees again, you’re screwed. I’m leaving w/o you.

It probably wasn’t bees. Lexi was already bouncing impatiently on her feet, twisting in this direction and that trying to squint through the night and see if he was stuck somewhere within her line of sight. Dammit, she should have thought to bring a flashlight! She held up her phone to see if the light from the screen would work as a substitute, but nope. It was too dim. The moon wasn’t much help either.

No matter what she threatened, Lexi wasn’t going to that party without Knucker. They were a duo. A team. Two of a kind. He HAD to be involved or she was just going to be one of those sad pathetic makeover girls from teen dramas who wandered around cool-kid parties like quaking rabbits.

Lexi was no rabbit.

And Knucker was taking too long.

“Gaaaaaaaaawd. HURRY UP. ARE YOU CLOSE ENOUGH TO HEAR ME?” she called out as loud as she dared.


There was still a full block between the Mathesons’ fence (you know, the one he’d gotten caught on) and the spot where Lexi was waiting on him.

At this point, though, his pants leg was way past saving and he was forced to admit defeat. The ripped look was… in or something, though, right? (Yeah… Somehow, Knucker didn’t think that applied to six inch tears up the side of your jeans.) These were one of the pairs he’d gotten as part of his back-to-school package too. His dad was going to kill him. (Especially since he’d have to come up with an explanation that didn’t involve sneaking out of his room to go to a party in the woods the night before the first day of school… Yeah. Awesome.)

Wincing, he fished his Swiss army knife out of his pocket and gave the denim one last dubious look. Welp, time to operate.

ill b ther asap, he texted. (He was doing it one-handed while holding a knife, okay? Poor spelling and grammar were understandable given the circumstances.)

(Sometimes Knucker wondered who the heck he thought he was explaining this stuff to.)

One irreparably disfigured pair of jeans later, Knucker was finally on his way to meet Lexi by the wood.

Devil’s Wood, whispered a perverse part of his psyche which Knucker was pretty sure was the voice of his Nana because no one ever really used the proper name of the local forest except for maybe senior citizens. Sure, they all told crazy as heck stories about the woods and what happened to people who went in there at night. But no one used the name.

Gulping, Knucker told himself to calm down. They were just stories. No one had ever really been eaten by monsters in the woods. Even if they totally looked like the kind of woods where people got eaten. As he got closer and closer, he found his eyes following the dark lines of the pine trees all the way up to where the tops jutted into the sky like claws digging into a star-spangled blanket.

Lexi would laugh if she could have heard him describe it that way.

Wait. Lexi. He should have caught up by now. In fact…

He drew to a halt by the old oak tree where his best friend was definitely not hanging around. No sign of her. Spinning in a circle, Knucker frowned to himself, scratching the back of his neck.

“Lex? Lexi, come on, you know I hate it when you do the jump-scare thing.”

Silence.

Where had she gone?

Out of earshot, he never heard Lexi calling him.

Something else did.


Lexi was just about to head off to Knucker’s rescue when she heard the snap of a twig. It broke the silence and stillness of the pine woods, jarringly loud and close-by.

“There you are, jeeeeze. Luckily I haven’t been wai…ting long. Knucker? Huh.” She didn’t see him. In fact, now that she thought about it, the sound was coming from behind her. Lexi spun around.

She caught a glimpse of a dark shape moving under the shadow of the trees.

“Real funny. Stop screwing around!” Silence. No, wait… sharp, short breaths and a rustling sound. Footsteps? “Who’s there?”

Lexi held out her phone again, a little like she’d seen Knucker’s dad do with his badge. The glow of the screen barely reached a few feet. Further out, though, something was moving again. A large outline crossed the path in front of her, just outside her circle of light. Suddenly her heart was ramming against her chest and it was all she could hear or feel.

A moment later she swallowed and scowled at herself. Lexi had enough common sense to know it was most likely just someone being a dick, or more likely some kind of animal. It wasn’t like there was a serial killer lurking in the woods.

“This is stupid,” she muttered. She wasn’t scared of shadows. Lexi stomped forward to prove it.

Whatever was out there, Lexi couldn’t quite catch another look at it after that. Once or twice a swatch of darkness seemed to dart between the trees ahead of her, but it was there and gone so quickly that it might have been her eyes playing tricks. Every time she began entertaining thoughts of turning back, however, a sound of rustling undergrowth or breaking branches further down the path caught her ears.

There was something out here. Knucker wasn’t great with dark creepy woods—or creepy anything really—so she doubted it was him. Who else would be out here roaming around? She wasn’t anywhere near the party, so she didn’t think it was her drunken peers stumbling around in the dark.

Well. It could be. Even if it were, though, she’d be hearing more than just a few shuffles and—Wait.

She could distinctly hear footsteps, coming up from behind.

Lexi whirled around, walking backwards as she aimed her phone’s light back the way she’d come. Not a person nor a shadow was to be found.

She was seriously starting to get freaked out.

Screw that. If she was going to freak, she might as well do it with a weapon. Lexi stopped and turned her phone down toward the ground. She kicked through leaves and bushes until she found an old branch that seemed solid enough to use as a weapon. Stripping off the extra twigs, she gave it a good test swing.

Perfect!

“All right, deer. Possum. Beaver. I’m ready.” She knew she sounded ridiculous, but somehow it made her feel less like a dumbass anyway.

That feeling was fleeting. Lexi’s bravado finally earned an answer in the form of a low, distinctly animal growl.

A split instant later, something heavy collided with her back, bowling her over and shoving her face-first into the forest floor. Pain shot through her shoulder, sharp and piercing and tearing and—this was the weirdest, most shocking part—blazing hot.

She could feel a tongue.

Lexi couldn’t even scream before she hit the dirt.


“This bites,” Knucker muttered to himself, pushing his way through the trees. Every now and then he had to stop and disentangle his shredded jeans where they’d caught on fallen branches or prickly, thorny bushes. His leg was starting to look like he’d tried to shave, badly. Or maybe just taken a swim in a lake of razors.

He couldn’t blame Lexi for going ahead without him, though. She had warned him that she would leave if he didn’t hurry up. It was pretty normal behavior as far as Lexi went, so he’d figured out what was going on right away. (Well, it was either that or she’d wandered off into the woods on her own to go do God-knows-what, but how likely was that? …Well, it was less likely than Lexi straight-up ditching him.)

Anyway, he could see light from a bonfire peeking through the trees up ahead and the distant beat of crappy dubstep was starting to assault his eardrums. He was almost there. Freaking finally.

Unfortunately, Knucker was so zeroed in on getting to the party and meeting up with Lexi that he nearly crashed right into the couple necking against a tree.

“Hey! Watch where you’re going, asshole,” snarled a horribly familiar voice.

Oh, shit. Even Knucker’s swear-jar-brought-to-you-by-Sheriff-Dad upbringing had to cut him some slack for cussing this time. He’d just stumbled right into Owen “Jerkwad” DeWhitt.


“Ew, it’s the gingertroll.” Margrit Berkshire had her fingers curled in Owen’s shirt, and that distinct puffy-lipped look of a girl who was just making out something fierce. Her lip gloss was a little smeared and her usually perfect hair was messy and falling free from its hair clips. The hypocrisy of calling Knucker a gingertroll was lost on her, and now she was staring him up and down with her nose wrinkled in disgust.

“What did you do, crawl up from under your bridge home and put on the first homeless man’s pants you could find?” She pushed Owen back with one of her hands—apparently with the idea of physically assaulting Knucker, because now she was shoving HIM back by the shoulder.

“Who the hell invited you anyway? This is a private party for humans. No trolls allowed.”


Knucker’s dad had this crazy theory that Margrit Berkshire picked on Knucker because she liked him. Knucker was pretty sure that couldn’t be further from the truth.

If it were true, he’d honestly be terrified, anyway.

And not only because Owen was glaring at Knucker over Margrit’s shoulder menacingly. Margrit was pretty monstrous all on her own. Knucker had long ago learned not to provoke her, because her temper was absolutely nasty. Sometimes he wondered how she had any friends at all, but apparently she only terrorized a select few… and Lexi and Knucker were her absolute favorites.

Lucky him.

“I’m looking for Lexi,” he muttered, taking a tiny step backward and shuffling his feet. “Did you, uh, have you seen her?”

“Why would I notice her?” growled Owen, his scowl going from you-are-inconveniencing-my-life right up to how-dare-you-speak-to-me-like-you-aren’t-a-paramecium. He was stepping around Margrit now, cracking his knuckles. Knucker briefly pictured Owen sharpening a spear and wearing a saber-toothed pelt. “We said you’re not invited, loser. This isn’t a party for freaks.”


Margrit went from looking disgusted to outright laughing. Her laugh was actually sort of charming, if you ignored the fact that she was actively seeking to terrorize him.

“Oh my god, were you trying to party crash? Where is she? I HAVE to see this!”

Wiping a thumb around her mouth to fix her lip gloss and resting her other hand on her hip, Margrit did a quick scan of the crowd. Her party was nothing less than social perfection. Several feet away, the bonfire itself sat center stage for her gathering. There were at least a hundred people scattered around, most of which were Silent Pines High seniors, though a few underclassmen had shown up. That little shit Paolo Martinez was trying to grind up on some girl, out of tune with Margrit’s carefully selected playlist of summer party tracks. Nearby, Melissa Siskin and Stacey McLean were arguing and also seemed to be looking around for someone amidst the throng.

Margrit made sure to give them both an imperious staring-down. Juniors like Melissa weren’t uninvited, but she wouldn’t have anyone causing drama in the middle of her perfect party.

Unfortunately, Lexi was nowhere to be seen. Margrit half expected her to be lurking somewhere in the shadows wearing one of her stupid hoodies and turning down beers like a total loser. She actually felt disappointed. Chasing Lexi and Knucker out together would have been great.

…Of course, now Knucker was here without his Lexi guard-dog.

Margrit gave the sweetest smile.

“You know, Owen. Let him stay. I bet he’s never been to a REAL party before.” Margrit stepped away for a few seconds, leaning over a long picnic table to confiscate a bottle of amber liquor and a short stack of cups. When she returned, she poured a drink for Knucker and shoved it at him.

“Drink. ‘Kay?”

The look on her face suggested that refusal would be deadly.


“I’m not supposed to,” Knucker blurted—and then wanted to facepalm so hard, because wow, that was probably literally the least cool thing he had ever said in his entire life. “…I mean, you know, I have to, uh, drive.”

Owen snorted derisively.

“Drive. Through the woods?”

Feeling his face heat up, Knucker made a grab for the cup, thumbing the grooves in the shiny red plastic as he tried to stall for time. Unfortunately all he could hear was the same three bars of a Toby Keith song, over and over and… nope, nothing useful was coming to him.

“Well, not drive through the woods, obviously. I mean. Drive home,” he fumbled.

Why was he bothering to talk to these jerks again? Knucker peered past them, hoping to catch a glimpse of Lexi or even just someone moderately friendly. But it turned out that when you’ve spent the last seventeen years of your life avoiding scaling the social ladder, you end up with little to no idea who was who in a crowd. Everyone knew Margrit; she was from one of the “Big Six” families. Owen was captain of the track team. It helped that the two of them had been torturing Knucker since they were all in diapers; that tended to make a person memorable. But the rest of these people were total enigmas.

For example, there was the girl in the black leather jacket standing on the other side of the fire. At first he wasn’t really sure why she caught his eye. Maybe it was the fact that she was standing so close to the flames, one hand outstretched dangerously close to the orange glow. She had short, dark hair and cinnamon skin and okay yeah she was giving Knucker the least friendly look on the planet when she caught him staring. Hastily, he turned away and found himself… face-to-face with Margrit again.

Out of the frying pan, into the… you know.


Margrit passed her extra cups to Owen, having him hold them aloft while she generously filled each one. She went through the motions like an upscale maître d’ serving champagne for the royal court instead of a high school senior pouring liquor and using the school’s favorite track star as an intimidating prop.

She snatched one of the cups, tilting it to her mouth with a grin before she downed the entire contents in three big swallows. Margrit cocked one perfectly-shaped eyebrow, the cherry on the cake of her smug expression before she gestured to Knucker’s untouched drink.

“You’re not a pussy are you? Afraid Sheriff Dad is going to put you in lockup for having one little sip? C’mon, drink it. Pretty please?” It was kind of impressive how she could go from looking so superior and saying the worst things only to melt into a pouty-face and gently urge him. All the while using that baby-talk tone as if he were still six years old.

That didn’t last long either, though. Margrit was determined to keep switching it up until Knucker was left dizzy, dazed, and confused. Passing a smirk Owen’s way, she bridged the gap between herself and Knucker. Margrit set her elbow on his shoulder and leaned heavily into his personal space. Her finger tipped his cup just so.

“I guess you need permission from Lexi first, since she paid to get you neutered. That does take all your will to live away, doesn’t it?”


Something brittle and worn-thin snapped inside of Knucker. And he knew it was probably what Margrit wanted, but he just couldn’t help himself.

First things first, he tipped back the booze. Oh man, wow. That was gross. It tasted like a mix of bug spray and toilet water, both flavors with which he was unfortunately familiar (thanks to Owen and Margrit, as it happened). But he swallowed it all down just the same with a grimace and promptly gave Margrit the best glare he could muster (which wasn’t much of one). For good measure, he crushed the empty cup in his hand.

“Pick on me all you want, but shut up about Lexi.”

“Look at Dexter standing up for his girlfriend.” Owen let out a low whistle, running a hand through his sandy blond hair.

“She’s my friend.”

“Sure. You don’t even have the balls to admit you like her.” The jock was sizing Knucker up now. “Have you ever even talked to a girl other than Lexi Ryan in your lameass life?”


Margrit tilted her head back and laughed out loud. The look on Knucker’s face was priceless. She couldn’t have asked for a better party gift than this. Clearly, his coward of a best friend had abandoned him to the wolves. Lexi was probably off sulking somewhere in the woods, too scared to show her face. This one-in-a-million opportunity was not going to be wasted.

“Owen. Don’t be so cruel. Obviously he has, you’ve seen the sweaters his Nana sends him every Christmas,” she chided. Margrit’s arm slipped from its perch on his elbow to wrap around his shoulders. She even squeezed him consolingly and gave him a pitying look.

“Your poor thing,” Margrit crooned. “Are you really going to spend your last year at Silent Pines High nipping at Lexi’s heels? I mean, you kind of have muscles now,” she muttered, angling herself away far enough pinch at his arm. “I’m sure SOMEONE here is desperate enough to have sex with you.”

Suddenly, those lip-gloss painted lips curved into a deviant smile.

“Let’s get him devirginized! Where’s that slut Angela when I actually need her?” Margrit glanced around again at the surrounding party. When her first choice of vicitimteers was nowhere to be seen, she laid eyes on a few alternative options.


“I—Wait, I don’t—” Knucker windmilled his arms and dug in his heels when Margrit hauled him forward, apparently dead set on finding someone to pop his cherry or at least to thoroughly humiliate him in the process. He wasn’t sure in that moment which would be worse.

When Owen shoved him in the back, though, he stumbled forward regardless. Knucker lifted his eyes only to find his course set in a beeline toward the girl across the fire. The one with the scary face and the leather jacket. Crap, had Margrit seen him looking at her earlier?! Oh god, she’d noticed him looking her way again and oh god, he was pretty sure she was going to murder him long before Margrit did. Knucker was officially dead.

But no. It turned out they were angling more to the right and in the direction of a much closer (and safer?) target: a pair of girls loitering on/around a parked hot pink scooter. One of them, a dainty little blonde, was balancing on one foot atop the seat; her companion was pacing around her and the scooter in a circle. They were embroiled in some kind of conversation, and it didn’t seem particularly pleasant from the way the brunette was frowning and tapping her foot and crossing her arms.

“—down from there, Missy, I hope you break your stupid twiggy little neck!”

“I’ll get down just as soon as I find Dylan! I know you’re not telling me where he is on purpose.”

“Maybe you can’t find him because he’s avoiding you.

“You’re so mean! Wait until Dylan hears about this, he’s going to—to—Oooh, you rude girl!” The blonde stomped and let out a little huff, causing her perch to teeter dangerously. The other girl blanched.

“He’s my little brother, he’s not gonna do shit to me. But I’m going to make him murder you if you break my scooter you psycho bitch!”

Yeah, no. Whatever this was, Knucker wanted no part of it.


“Laaaaadiiiies!” Margrit sang out. Somewhere along the way she’d tossed her red cup into one of the trashbag-lined boxes she’d set up earlier that evening around the clearing’s edges. Now she had both her hands on Knucker, digging her manicured fingernails into his skin to keep him from bolting.

Melissa and Stacey weren’t exactly Margrit’s friends, per se. Unless you were one of the Queen’s very tight inner circle, you were nothing more than a minion. And though last year Margrit had spent a good portion of her lunch periods test-driving the two girls when her girl-pack fell apart, she simply could not deal with them in the long-term. For one, Melissa was a daffy little pixie. Margrit already HAD one of those—with a coveted Big Six family name to boot, which made Melissa a pointless addition. Meanwhile, Stacey drove a SCOOTER. If that wasn’t reason enough to be disgusted with a person, then Margrit didn’t know what was.

But for harassing her gingertroll toy? They were perfect.

“Look what I have! Isn’t he a daaaaarling?” Not once in Knucker’s life had Margrit ever called him a darling ANYTHING. But even if these girls didn’t know that, the hint was in the way she nearly choked on the letter g.

“Stop bickering over your pointless nonsense. Knucker needs assistance. He’s a virgin.” She said it like it was some sort of genetic disease worthy of having its own non-profit charity.


“Oh no,” said Melissa, her big blue eyes wide. Her expression was solemn as the grave. “That’s terrible! But how could we help?”

Stacey finally reached up and seized Melissa by the wrist, tugging the girl down off of the scooter. Melissa dropped down with a startled squeak.

“By fucking him, Missy. At least that’s the idea, right?” Next to dainty little Melissa Siskin, Stacey looked like she should be on the girls’ rugby team. She had a face that was just a little too square to be attractive and a thick head of dark brown hair. Combined with her broad shoulders and the fact she was nearing 5’10”, she made a stark contrast to Melissa’s elfin features and stick-thin frame. “God, how are you this dumb.”

“Rude!” shrieked Melissa, swatting at the other girl. “And anyway, I’m with Dylan. So I can’t.”

That last bit was directed Knucker’s way, with evident sincerity.


For some bizarre reason, Knucker found himself looking over his shoulder at Owen.

Owen was hanging back, evidently content to watch Margrit have her fun rather than enact his own brand of torture. It was a shame, really. Knucker usually could deal with being thrown in a dumpster or given a swirly; Margrit was the real terror here. Maybe Owen knew that. (He probably did.)

Their eyes met. Owen gave Knucker a little shrug and a look that plainly said What, do you expect me to help?

“Do you have a boyfriend?” Knucker heard himself blurt as he whipped back around to face Stacey McLean. Oh god, what was he doing?

“Omigod, Stacey, a boy likes you!” gasped Melissa, her face lighting up as she clapped her hands together in apparent rapture. “That’s so great! It’s been years!”

“Wh—No, but I can do better than some loser math dweeb virgin!” Stacey’s whole face was scarlet and her eyebrows were arching furiously like angry caterpillars. Knucker just kept racking up the pissed-off girls tonight. Maybe he’d set some kind of record. “Fuck off! Missy, come on, let’s go find Dumbass.”

“But—”

“No buts,” growled Stacey. She was already yanking Melissa away. The smaller girl’s heels dragged through the carpet of pine needles covering the forest floor as she looked back over her shoulder to wave at Knucker.

Annnnnd Knucker found himself abandoned once again to Margrit’s ruthless clutches.

He groaned.


“Ugh. How absolutely useless. I thought for sure the two of them were desperate enough for attention that even a virgin troll would be attractive,” Margrit sulked out loud. And since when was Melissa back together with Dylan McLean? Margrit thought they had broken up over the summer. Apparently the holes in her gossip network had grown so large even low-level information wasn’t reaching her ears.

For all she knew this troll and his guardian golem were plotting more than just crashing her party.

Margrit rested her hand on the back of his neck in a way that was anything but reassuring. She gave him a tiny squeeze before her nails dug in, like she was about to snatch him up or maybe strangle him. Even that look on her face was a little alarming—calculating, with just a hint of concern as she eyed him up and down.

When she smiled and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, Knucker was struck with a sudden sense of impending doom.

“Knucker, Knucker, Knucker… How long have we known each other? Since kindergarten, right?” she purred. “We should talk about all of your plans for senior year. Like friends do. Owen, get him a REAL drink. You’re not scared of whiskey, are you Knucker?”


“You want to waste the good shit on this loser?” Owen scowled. “Margrit, come on—”

“Not scared,” mumbled Knucker, shrugging off Margrit’s arm. He took a step away.

Owen turned and looked at Knucker like he was some kind of gross little insect that had shown up somewhere unexpected. Like on his birthday cake or something. (Knucker remembered when that happened with the caterpillar on his seventh birthday. That time, it had actually been Lexi who was to blame…)

…Lexi. Where (the fuck) was Lexi?

“What was that?” demanded Owen, looming over Knucker. And how tall even was the guy?! Knucker wasn’t a giant, but he wasn’t that short either.

“I—” Knucker sucked in a breath. “I said I’m. Not. Scared.”

“Oh yeah?”

He watched, stomach churning, as Owen stalked over to a table lined with bottles and snatched up what looked like a fifth of Jack. (Knucker might be a good kid, but he was also a cop’s kid. He knew what a fifth of Jack was, okay?) By the time the track captain had circled back around, Knucker was regretting ever opening his mouth. The regret amped up from ohgodwhatamIdoing to oh god, I really WILL die a virgin the moment that Owen shoved the bottle into his hand and forcefully closed his fingers around it.

“Fine, Knucker.” Grey eyes stared into his, unflinching. “Drink up.”

Knucker glanced down at the black-and-white label on the bottle, fighting the panic that was trying to creep into his expression. Time to find out if he was a liar.

There’s nothing to be scared of, he told himself, and unscrewed the cap.


Even after she went down, Lexi didn’t shriek. It was hard to when all the wind was knocked out of you and your mouth was clogged with dirt and leaves. Not that she wanted to, but she couldn’t see a damned thing either; her cellphone had gone flying somewhere into the brush. Lexi struggled to get away, to stand up.

There was a sickening ripping noise as she tried to pull free. It wasn’t like tearing fabric; it was more like the noise that meat makes when you strip it off the bone, only a lot louder.

NOW she was screaming, instinct kicking in as the shock faded and the pain in her shoulder flooded in. She rolled, frantically elbowing until she hit home and struck the animal right in the jowls.

It was a rabid dog, right? Must have been. Except… when she hit it, it let out an ear-grating bark that didn’t sound quite like any dog that she’d ever heard before. A large paw scrabbled at her side, and she got her first clue of how huge the thing was, because that paw was easily the size of her hand.

“Fuuuuck! Fuck! Urgghh! Hhhrrnng.” Hurthurthurthurt. Lexi was thinking in red, a blur of pain and panic. Her arms and legs flailed as she tried to get distance from all the fur and TEETH. Finally she balled up a fist and punched it, which must have surprised it just as much as it did her because she got loose enough to scramble across the ground.

Lexi was on her feet and running in an instant. She didn’t look back to see what it was. Even when she stumbled over a fallen tree, she picked her ass up and kept running.

Out of the corner of her eye, a vaguely person-shaped silhouette flashed between the trees. If someone was out there, they must have heard the screams… but she didn’t have time to call for help. The thing was right on her heels, snapping and snarling, so close she could feel breath and flecks of moisture against the back of her neck. Which didn’t seem right because how could it be that high off the ground?

Either way, it was close. Almost on top of her. Sooner or later, Lexi was going to get tired…

Slam. Lexi could practically feel as well as hear when the thing chasing her hit the dirt behind her, yelping and scuffling. In fact, there was another, different growl in the mix now, accompanied by thrashing and crunching and a veritable cacophony of assorted unpleasant sounds. Sounds that were no longer quite so nearby, and getting further behind as her feet carried her forward.

She was still running. A red glow was filtering through the trees up ahead. Darkly, she thought it might’ve been the fires of hell and she was already dead, because obviously hell beasts had collided behind her. That was the only thing that could explain the sheer horrifying sounds she could still hear echoing through the woods.

As she got closer, she could see it was the light of a bonfire.

“What the fuck!” Some poor asshole jumped aside as Lexi stumbled out of the trees and right into the middle of Margrit Berkshire’s party.

“Shit, I am so high—”

Lexi couldn’t blame them for backing away. She probably looked like a psycho. Leaves and twigs were matted in her hair. Blood was pouring from her shoulder, down her arm and all over her pretty new clothes.

The moment she spotted Knucker she staggered over to him, snatching an open liquor bottle from his hands and gulping it down. She needed that drink. Anything to help dull the pain and erase the memory of her five minutes in a Silent Hill game.

“Holy shit…!” Margrit rarely ever sounded genuinely surprised and concerned, but this was one of those rare occasions. “What the hell happened to you?! Ew, no! Don’t touch me, you’ll stain my dress!”

She was back to normal again, inching away from Lexi as the girl reached out to try and steady herself using Margrit’s arm. Someone—was it Owen?—pried the whiskey bottle away from her. Lexi moaned piteously.

“A BEAR or a WOLF or something. Just… give me another drink, this HURTS!” Now that she had some light to see by, she took a look at her shoulder.

That turned out to be a bad idea. Lexi nearly fainted. Shockingly, Owen was the one who caught her, his arms looping under Lexi’s and holding her upright. Even he looked a little bewildered, as if he weren’t sure why he’d just done something that might be called considerate.


“…Holy crap, Lex!” Finally finding his voice, Knucker grabbed Lexi’s arm to get a better look at her shoulder. It was definitely an animal bite, and it looked like an entire chunk of her shoulder was missing. He was pretty sure that was bone peeking out. There was blood everywhere and her shirt was falling open in a way that he could kind of see her bra and wow that was totally inappropriate, okay. Shrugging out of his jacket as quickly as possible, he tried to sort of wrap it around her while avoiding getting tangled with Owen (who was still propping her up).

“Here,” Owen grunted, and sort of nudged Lexi at Knucker like he expected him to do something about it.

“We need to get you to the hospital!” he told her, in what was honest-to-God not a croak or anything like that. It was one thing taking a first aid course and another having your best friend bleeding to death in the middle of the woods. “A bear? Seriously?!”


“A wolfbear,” she hissed. All this grabbing and jostling was just reminding her how much everything freaking hurt. Lexi untangled herself from everyone and held up her hands to let them know she was fine. “I got this. Fine. We’re here to party…! Fuck that freaking… bearwolf. I think—broke my hand…”

Lexi shook her hand out a bit and refused to look at her shoulder again. Scars were cool. She was totally a badass. She was rocking on her feet, clearly in shock and probably near delirious from blood loss. Thinking and behaving like a sane person was no longer on the table. She tilted forward and went face-first into Knucker’s shoulder, clinging onto him to keep from hitting the ground.

That wasn’t cool.

“Uh, hello!” Margrit shouted. “She is totally about to bleed out and I am SO not going to have my party known as the night Lexi Ryan died and have that be all everyone talks about for the rest of the year.”

She dug around in her purse until they heard the unmistakable jangle of keys.

“Take my car, whatever, just GO.”


It was all Knucker could do not to gape at Margrit. He was pretty sure this night had reached the peak of surrealism at this point. Margrit and Owen being kinda sorta nice was right up there with the wolfbear.

But yeah, he didn’t really have time to sit around and wonder at the bizarreness of the evening. Hastily, he snagged Margrit’s keys from her outstretched hand and shot her what he hoped was an appropriately grateful look.

“Thanks. Uh, I’ll get it back to you tomorrow? C’mon, Lexi,” he urged, hauling her good arm up and over his shoulder and starting to wobble in the direction he hoped Margrit’s car would be. Which… yeah, he had no idea, honestly.

But someone was tagging along.

“I’ll help you get her there,” Owen told him tersely, not looking especially happy about volunteering but clearly determined. He was steadying Lexi’s other side and actually improving their combined walking capacity by a really good margin. Knucker supposed he should be gracious about accepting the goodwill while it lasted and so kept his mouth shut. Together, they managed to navigate through the woods to Margrit’s car with minimal trouble. Knucker used his free hand to light the way with his cellphone, especially on the alert since there were apparently rabid and violent animals wandering around and it was probably a really bad idea to be caught out there in the dark…

Margrit’s little metallic Nismo was parked in one of the public nature trail parking lots that dotted the woods off the highway. It was where most of the party-goers who’d had the option not to hoof it seemed to have left their vehicles. Jesus, some asshole had brought an old Aston Martin. Knucker did a double-take as they passed it.

The boys steered Lexi over to the Nissan and briefly shuffled around so Knucker could be free enough to manage the keys. Across the parking lot, voices picked up; it seemed they weren’t the only ones around after all.

“—have you been?” Oh man. Knucker knew that voice. “I’ve been so worried! Stacey was picking on me the whole time! And there was this boy that Margrit Berkshire wanted me to do things with.

“I was not picking on you—”

“I’m sorry! I got held up, I had to help Caleb with a thing.”

“A thing?! Dyyyyylan. You’ve been spending more time with Caleb than you have with me lately. I swear…”

Ducking his head and praying that the girls didn’t look his way, Knucker tried to walk Lexi the few remaining steps to the car.

“But the paaaarty,” Lexi whined, giving Knucker a pitiful look. He felt a rush of relief; he’d started to worry that she’d passed out, because she’d been a little too quiet on their way out here.

“You can’t party if you’re dead,” Knucker protested.

In response, she tilted her head back until she was blinking wearily at Owen instead.

“Yuuuuuur not a dick.” Her mouth curved in to a wiiiiide toothy smile. That faded slowly into a concerned frown. “Donchou dare toss me in tha dumpster again, swur ter gawd…”

The boys exchanged a look over Lexi’s head. Knucker guessed this was what male bonding felt like, because he was pretty sure Owen’s face reflected the exact levels of uncomfortableness and oh my (fucking) God this girl is insane that his own must have been expressing at that moment.

“Just get in the car,” Owen grunted, keeping Lexi upright—and avoiding her eyes—while Knucker fumbled with the keys and unlocked the passenger-side door. As soon as he’d gotten it open, he stepped aside in time for Owen to actually sweep her up bridal-style and load her into the seat. It was completely as impressive as it sounded and Knucker was completely kinda jealous, because he sure couldn’t have done that.

“Thanks,” he muttered, circling around to the driver’s side. “I got it from here.”

“…Yeah, okay. Don’t crash Margrit’s car unless you want to get your ass sued, fucknuts.” The other boy glanced down at himself, grimaced at the dark stain on his white t-shirt. He only hesitated for a minute before he pulled it up and over his head. “If she doesn’t die, tell her she owes me for ruining my clothes.”

“You, uh, gonna be alright walking back by yourse—” Knucker began, but quelled at the absolute look of rage and offense on Owen’s face. Yeah, maybe he shouldn’t have implied that a roid-raging jock might not be able to take care of himself; that wasn’t the smartest idea even if there were man-eating wolfbears. “Right, yeah, sorry. Never mind. Uh, see you tomorrow.”

“Fucking go already, Polk.”


Lexi felt like her blood was on fire. It was similar to the burn in her gut when she’d swallowed that whiskey, but this was spread out all over the place: arms and legs, fingers and toes. Probably because she was bruised in every nook and cranny. She couldn’t decide which was worse, that or the glimmer of bone playing peek-a-boo with her from her shoulder. Everything above her elbow had gone numb at this point, so (aside from making her want to throw up a little) she decided the latter wasn’t so bad.

The more worrying thing was that Lexi had no idea how she got into the car. She might have blacked out for a minute, or gotten dizzy or something. She had the vague feeling that maybe she was flying, or floating, or… was super high? She’d never tried hard drugs before, but Lexi would bet this was what being high felt like. She was pretty sure she was hallucinating anyway, because Owen was shirtless and he looked like one of those action movie cover dudes. With blood all over him and that expression that screamed I will punch all the things.

The car door shut in her face, which left her teetering in the other direction when Knucker climbed in on the driver’s side. Now her whole body was numb, which was good. Nothing hurt anymore. Kind of like getting dosed with laughing gas and Novocaine at the dentist.

“Dis isn’t yours. Oh man… lookit this girly stuff.” There were shiny prisms and beads hanging from the rear-view mirror. Lexi batted at them a few times, leaving a smear of red blood behind. She looked down at her hands in shock, as if only just then realizing that she was injured.

“Oh yeah, the bite… Eh! I’m feeling better now.”

And that’s when she slumped over right onto Knucker’s lap and passed out.


Knucker wasn’t sure what was the most horrifying thing happening at the moment, because there was a long list to choose from.

Taking Owen’s advice, he floored the gas as much as he dared, headed for the hospital. He didn’t want to speed; the last thing they needed now was to get pulled over. They were in enough trouble as it was and Knucker wasn’t sure they could afford the time it would take to explain to an officer. Especially since… yeah, there was no way now that his dad wasn’t going to find out about this. Lexi’s either. They were going to be grounded for a year.

But none of that mattered, as long as Lexi was okay.

“It’s going to be okay,” he whispered, not entirely sure why he was bothering since he doubted she was going to wake up anyway. Gingerly, he petted her head, brushing her long auburn hair out of her face and pulling a dead leaf out of her curls. “You’re not going to die. It’s okay.”

She was still out of it when he pulled Margrit’s champagne-colored sports car into the parking lot of the ER. He halfway wished that Owen had come along for the ride after all, because yeah, there was no way he was going to be able to pull off getting her out of the car by himself.

“Lex,” he began, shaking her as gently as possible and trying to keep the panic out of his voice. “Lex, come on, get up. I can’t carry you. It’ll be awkward and humiliating for everyone if I try, so you need to wake up now, okay? Lexi. Lexi.


“Stahp. Staaaaaahhhp.” Ugh. Uuuuugh. What the hell was Knucker doing? Bleary-eyed and confused, Lexi grunted as she slowly sat up. All of the numbness was gone and it was back to feeling like she had rolled around in the woods being attacked by a wolfbear. Which she was, holy shit. The euphoria, adrenaline, bloodloss, or whatever it was that had her doing mental loops was starting to fade away now too. Her little nap in the car did her good—or bad; Lexi had no freaking idea. All she was aware of right then was that she felt stupid as fuck and seriously freaked out.

“I’m not dead, it—ooowww. Ow, ow, ow…” She groaned, fumbling for the door and effectively putting bloody hand prints on everything as she pushed it open and practically fell out. While using the door to help herself climb to her feet, she gave the fancy champagne-colored beast a once-over. Oh god, she knew whose car this was. Knucker stole Margrit’s car to get her to the hospital! That had to be the single most awesome, most stupid thing he had ever done!

“Uunngh. My BONES hurt! How do bones even hurt?!” Lexi leaned against the car, glaring at the hospital building. If Knucker tried to carry her, they would both end up face-first on the pavement, and her body ached enough as it was. She might as well die in the hospital tonight. Lexi was starting off the school year as the girl mauled by a wild animal. And Knucker was a car thief.

“Leave me on the sidewalk so I can die dramatically, never quite reaching my destination,” she moaned, sliding down nearly all the way to the ground again.


Funnily enough, all of that wailing and flailing was what finally calmed Knucker down. If Lexi was well enough to be melodramatic, she couldn’t really be dying after all, he reckoned.

“Come on,” he repeated, scrambling out of the car after her and reaching a hand down to haul her up by her uninjured arm before she hit the pavement. Which… didn’t work very well, so he ended up grabbing onto her fingers with both hands and putting all of his weight into it. “I’m not letting you die! Our dads will KILL me!”

And I’d never get over it.


For a moment or two she deliberately let herself be dead weight. Like a cat refusing to be picked up. But seeing as Knucker would be the first person on her dad’s shitlist if she died unexpectedly, Lexi took pity on her best friend and rose to her feet. …Or stumbled and crashed into him. Whatever.

With Knucker acting as support, they shuffled across the hospital parking lot and through the automatic doors into the emergency room lobby.

Their town hospital was a decent size, but in the middle of the night it was still pretty vacant aside from a few people lingering in waiting chairs and the graveyard-shift nurses wandering about. Everything was pretty low-key.

At least until Knucker and Lexi strode in covered in gobs of blood. They must have looked an absolute terror because the desk nurse shouted out for help immediately, and suddenly Lexi found herself shoved into a wheelchair and whisked away to an examining room.

The questions that followed were the expected, and the answers earned a dozen more questions. No, it wasn’t a car wreck. No, she wasn’t drinking BEFORE she got attacked by a wild animal. No, it wasn’t a person. NO, DON’T CALL HER DAD. FUCK. NO. SHE SAID DON’T CALL HER DAD.

Luckily they let Knucker stay with her. She doubted he would have been fine staying in the lobby fretting, and she kind of maybe was a little glad he was there for her to cling onto his arm while they took a look at her shoulder. Lexi was fully prepared for a gory scene involving exposed bone and muscle, complete with a cast or a million stitches or even surgery to reattach her arm.

That wasn’t what happened.

“Oh honey, this isn’t bad at all!” exclaimed the nurse when she wiped away the dirt and blood with sterile cotton swabs to reveal the damage.

Beyond some weird looking scratches and a couple of shallow punctures, the wound was far from life-threatening. The ER doctor told Lexi that it wouldn’t need any stitches, just bandages and some aspirin. Once again the questions about drinking and drugs came.

Lexi was baffled.

“I’m not drunk! It was seriously BAD. It almost ripped my arm off! Knucker, you saw my shoulder. Tell her I almost died.”


From the moment they entered the hospital, for Knucker, everything had been a blur. Questions from the nurses and Lexi’s frustrated replies, the clock ticking on the wall of the examining room, and the warmth of Lexi’s fingers curled around his wrist were all he remembered. He was pretty sure he wasn’t drunk, so maybe it was the fading adrenaline that was making the edges of his vision start to fuzz. He tried to focus on his friend’s face instead of the gaping hole in her shoulder that was about to be uncovered—until it wasn’t, and he was suddenly quite sharply aware of the moment.

Dumbfounded, Knucker swallowed and furrowed his brow as Lexi tried to explain to the doctor. Yeah, that wasn’t what he remembered seeing. Slowly, he shook his head.

“I… I swear, it was worse, ma’am.” He’d sworn he’d seen her bones sticking out, Jesus. “There was blood everywhere.”

There’s no way he could have just imagined all of that, right? And he’d only had a little bit of alcohol. Surely not enough to misjudge what he was seeing that badly. …Right?

Knucker met Lexi’s eye and did his best to silently communicate: Holy crap, I don’t know what’s happening but I’ve got your back like always, but I also really don’t know how to explain this and they’re going to think we’re totally high aren’t they?


What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fuck! She wasn’t CRAZY. Something huge out there had ripped her to shreds. Lexi tried to poke at her shoulder while the nurse swatted her hands away. Chunks were bitten out of her. Her blood had been on fire.

Had been. Lexi was coming to the slow realization that she was no longer in mind-blowing agony. Sure, she ached pretty bad. But it was nothing compared to the pain that had driven her to snatching for booze and consequently forgetting the vast majority of what happened afterward.

So what if she didn’t remember Knucker stealing a car, though. She clearly remembered a giant animal jumping her ass and going to town on her like she was a free steak buffet.

“I’m not making this shit up!”

“Alexa.”

Oh fuck, oh fuck, oh fuck!

If she could shrink to the size of a roach and scuttle her way out of there, Lexi would have done it in a heartbeat. There was a good reason she was a well-behaved kid (as well-behaved as she could manage, anyway). And that reason was now standing in the threshold giving her disappointed dad eyes.

Jacob Ryan had some sort of superpower which enabled him to pour a novel’s-worth of guilt into the three syllables it took to pronounce her name. Like “Alexa” had become short-code for I have raised you on my own since you were three years old, never asked for anything, and you repay me with [insert stupid thing you did]?

Lexi took a good look at her father. His dark hair was disheveled, sticking up in every direction. He was still wearing his pajamas, with his coat thrown on over them. The laces of his boots weren’t even tied. The worst part was that he looked like he was both going to cry or punch someone—and Knucker was the only one available for punching, because he couldn’t possibly punch the doctor or nurse.

Lexi immediately launched into defense mode.

“IT WASN’T A CAR ACCIDENT AND WE WEREN’T DRINKING!” she blurted, a few octaves louder than she meant to.

“Explain.”

Oh god, he wasn’t even using full sentences. It took every ounce of effort not to raise her arms, give the daddy-please-don’t-hate-me pout and beg for a hug. She almost died, dammit.

So she explained, from the very beginning. Sneaking out for the party. Waiting for Knucker. The wolfbeaverbear grim reaper thing that tried to eat her. Her narrow escape. She left out Knucker stealing Margrit’s car; she wasn’t sure how that happened. She also left out the part about guzzling Jack Daniels. It wasn’t like a drink would matter and Knucker didn’t drink at all. The important part was that she was safe and alive. …Right?

There was no reading his expression. His fists opened and closed a few times while the nurse went on to inform him that while an animal definitely had gotten after his daughter, the wounds were nothing more than shallow scratches. All that blood was misleading and the girl was fine. No reason for her to miss her first day of school.

Mr. Ryan stared straight at Knucker.

“Your dad is here to drive us home.” He didn’t say anything else, and neither his tone nor his expression changed. He didn’t have to say anything else. His Dad-Magic was already working.

Lexi slid off her seat, grabbing Knucker’s wrist and leading the way so she could be the human shield between him and Sheriff Polk.

The sheriff was waiting just outside in the hall. Lexi nearly walked straight into him.

Knucker had inherited his dad’s red hair, his height, and his blue-grey eyes. What he had failed to inherit was George Polk’s absolute no-nonsense, no-bullshit intimidating stare. The full unfiltered force of that was now being unleashed on his kid and his kid’s best friend. It was lacking the accompanying edge it usually gleaned from his uniform, but the plaid pajama pants and t-shirt he’d turned up in somehow weren’t much easier to take.

“I see no one died,” he greeted them, one eyebrow raised.

Lexi opened her mouth, intending to spin a grand tale of her brush with death and Knucker’s heroism… but a sharp throat-clearing sound from behind them cut her short. The Dads were having none of that tonight.

Knucker and Lexi exchanged a psychic glance.

Looks like we’re spending senior year in domestic prison.