Setting Fire 002: Bright-Eyed and Bushy-Tailed (Original Draft)

Setting Fire 002: Bright-Eyed and Bushy-Tailed (Original Draft)

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

Okay, maybe he was being a little bit (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) 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 (the fuck) 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.

After all, 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.

All things considered, she really should have been dead or something. At the very least, taking full advantage of their teacherless classroom and getting a little of the sleep she 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. Dying to get up and do something. Run. Have breakfast. Anything that didn’t involve sitting in a chair motionless.

“Yeah, weirdly okay.” she leaned over her desk muttering at Knucker. Her leg was bouncing up and down and she was tapping her fingers on her desk. She might as well of looked like a cracked out junkie needing a fix with how bad 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.”

Uuuuurg! How long have they been sitting there? Ten minutes? Fifteen? She wanted to get uuuuup. There was the worst temptation to throw herself on the rolling and just start rolling around, she was that wound up.

Lexi reached across the empty space with both hands, grabbing on to Knucker’s shirt and tugging at his sleeve. “Do you have any candy stashed on you somewhere? 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 (fucking) 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 she could smell food on him. Maybe he had spilled his breakfast this morning. Lexi gave up with a huff, flopping back in her seat and leaning over the back of it with a cascade of limp arms and long 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 to see whoever it was walking through the door. It was, after all, quite probably their truant teacher.

At first, Knucker thought it couldn’t be. The man who’d walked through the door was young, 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 (Hell) 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, she had curiously turned to stare at their new arrival. She could hear someone in the back mumbling under the 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?!

Now Lexi was looking a bit perturbed, shifting uncomfortably to sit straighter in her seat. She looked down to see if maybe there was ketchup on her shirt, and fussed a hand through her hair to make sure it wasn’t sticking up everywhere wild and weird.

“It’s the first day. You’re supposed to tell us who should be here.” she blurted out. 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. He stared at her all weird. This was what bold people did, wasn’t it? Lexi squinted and gave Mr. Anderson what she hoped was an intimidating stare.

“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 he still had 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,” Kendall Matheson supplied helpfully from the third row, head whipping up from where she’d been whispering furiously with Stacy McLean. “She’s Lexi Ryan.”

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


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 or they get trampled on by students for the rest of the year.

“Yessir. After school.” she muttered, sliiiiiding down low in her chair and propping up a book to shield herself from stares. She was getting a lot of them now, and could hear the snickering in the back of the class.

Lexi mouthed a sorry at Knucker.

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 plant his face right in 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 chewing. Food, precious blessed food. She payed extra for the heap of things on her tray, which was going to hurt considering her dad was probably never going to give her allowance ever again. After spending the morning swearing she could smell the cafeteria all the way from the other side of the school, actually getting to stuff her face now was heaven.

Incidentally, she’d been smelling things extra especially well all morning, which wasn’t all good. Between perfumes, socks, and teenage funk, it was all kinds of nauseating. Which left Lexi falling in to a momentary thoughtful pause.

“What’s the symptoms of rabies? I DO kinda feel sick and this morning I did feel kinda rabid. Uuuugghhh…” 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. Like when someone walks in to a room have you ever just wanted to punch them in the face? Not that I wanted to punch him or something, but yeah. And where did he get off staring like he was 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 would be 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. No she definitely didn’t know that guy. With her head still resting on the table, she shoved another piece of her extra sandwich in her mouth.

“Murrby.” she grunted out around the chewing. She DID kind of itch. It wasn’t just where she was bit, though. Lexi was itching all over. Like her skin was crawling or her hair was becoming sentient and waving about. Just in case (and because the thought really freaked her out) she took a look at her arm. Normal.

Just as she was sitting back up, an angry fire demon slammed it’s hands on the lunch table, causing Lexi to jump in her seat. Margrit Berkshire leaned forward on her hands, and every inch closer she came, Lexi slid lower in her chair. There was the urge to start whimpering, but it was dangerous to show weakness to Margrit when she had that look.

“You DESTROYED my car.” Margrit hissed. “You and your troll. So you thought scrubbing imported leather with soap and water was a good idea? Which one of you little shits came up with that.” she turned her eyes on Knucker, holding up a hand to jab a beautifully manicured nail at the tip of his nose. “Was it you?”

Suddenly, Margrit snatched her hand back and that murderous glare was replaced with something much MUCH more frightening. She smiled. Smile so sweetly angels could have been singing above her and shining down a spotlight. “Don’t worry I explained EVERYTHING to your father this morning, Lexi. About my party being crashed by a bunch of drunk college jerks. Your tumble out of the woods and how Owen and I saved your life by letting the troll borrow my car. He was VERY understanding.”

“And now…” she giggling, reaching up to poke both of them on the nose. Lexi nearly tried to bite her finger off, but this whole thing was so horrifyingly messed up she couldn’t seem to stop sitting there with her mouth gaping open. Margrit found this amusing. “You gutter trolling shits are going to be my bitches for the rest of the year. We’re going to have SO much fun!” Margrit turned away and walked off, laughing all the way over to her table where she took a seat with Owen DeWhitt and Silvia Whelan. Whom seemed to be staring in their direction with the most peculiar look on her face.

“Holy shit, what just happened.” Lexi finally said. She was still in shock. “Are we… did we die last night and go to hell?”

“Probably.” That was a pretty good explanation. Not much was making sense 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, being just a freshman, and he knew she was also way too nice to be hanging out with Margrit and Owen so he didn’t really understand how that happened. But that was it.

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

“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 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 squinted up her nose in confusion, but she mimicked the motion by lifting up her fork and waving too. She looked like she was about to mouth something, but Margrit snapped her fingers near her eyes. Whatever the odd exchange was, it was now forgotten as the cool kids started chortling about something incredibly hilarious.

Lexi scowled. If they were talking about them…. 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 so we could make this year extra awesome. We already failed the Epic Party Crash. I mean, LISTEN to that.” she gestured to a table all the way across the room. She could hear them right now, trying to see who could come up with the best new name for them. Normally they didn’t talk so LOUD. “I mean seriously, Little Red Ginger Hood and the Drunk Who Cried Wolf? It’s not even GOOD humiliating nicknames.”

Lexi scowled even further, slumping in her seat again. “It’s okay if you don’t want to try out too. …You’ll at least be there, though?” Amidst all her snarling and pouting, there was the hint of the nonrabid girl who was a lot more insecure and afraid to do things on her own than she pretended to be. Lexi cast him her best of pleading pouts.

Lexi was right; those were pretty bad as far as humiliating nicknames go. Knucker was kinda an expert on humiliating nicknames. He was a weird, unpopular kid. Named Knucker. He’d heard everything. For an entire year after Harry Potter came out and all his classmates started picking up British slang, the school had known him as Knickers.

Problem was he hadn’t actually heard anyone say any of that. 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 are the best!” Lexi through her arms around his shoulder’s 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 tat 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 dinner so close to the house. You smell like meat.” she remarked releasing him and looking down at her empty lunch plate with a forlorn sigh. There was no time to grab any more food, the next class was gonna start soon.

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 more embarrassing, but that did it. Also, weird. Why was she smelling him? Crap (shit), he hadn’t really gotten a shower between all the car washing and school, did he smell bad? Grilled meat was a good thing to smell like, right?

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.

Near the end of the school day, everyone that wanted to try out for teams got to leave class a little early so they could head off to the locker rooms and get changed.

That’s where things started to go downhill.

Lexi changed in to her clothes quickly, and was ready to walk out. The Margrit had to get in her way. Lexi knew something was coming just by the way the red-head looked her up and down. From the top of her head down to her toes. Then that smug smirk happened. Margrit always looked particularly smug when she had something really nasty to say. Lexi braced herself.

“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 her, brown eyes going wide and her mouth forming an O shape.

“What?” Lexi looked down quickly as her legs. What the fuck. She might as well of had a middle-aged MAN’S leg with how much hair was all over them. But she JUST shaved yesterday, knowing she was going to be wearing shortass shorts for the tryouts!

“You’re going to fit right in with the football team.” Margrit chortled, turning on her bleach white sneakers and making her cheerleader skirt twirl. “Lets go, Silvia. We need to cheer on the ACTUAL athletes.” She flounced out.

Before Silvia followed, she leaned forward and whispered. “There’s some extra razors in my locker.”

Having to shave her legs as quickly as possible not only made her LATE but it also left her with several nicks all over the place that she had to cover with several band-aids. They itched like crazy. At least she made it out to the field, and once she spotted Knucker nearby, Lexi felt a TON more confident.

Sadly the confidence wasn’t doing her a lick of good.

During the first group of basketball tryouts Lexi’s depth perception started getting all weird. That resulted in a basketball right in the face. For a moment there, she thought her nose was broken. But a pinch and a crack later it seemed to be just fine. Her EGO was totally smashed, but her nose was fine.

Cheerleading was a stupid idea and fared even worse. Though she suspected Margrit must have sabotaged her on that one. Lexi was forced to be one of the bottom people of a pyramid, but after a moment something was really tickling her nose. The smell of perfume was SO strong. Lexi sneezed, and honestly she wasn’t sure how a simple sneeze would have caused the whole pyramid to topple, but the girls SWORE that she threw them. (The only great part about it was that Margrit had been on the very top of the pyramid, and landed on her ass.)

After she accidentally let go of her baseball bat during softball tryouts and it slung across the field only to knock some guy out, Lexi was in for a well needed break. She wandered over to Knucker, dropped to her knees and face-planted right in to the grass.

“Uuuggnnhhh. Everything is going SO WROOOOOONG. Did you see that guy? What are the chances..!” she mumbled, her voice getting 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. Hopefully maybe his touch would be reassuring somehow.

“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, not even kind okay at everything. She just needed ONE thing. And so far, the one thing she was good at was failing so hard that she not only injured herself, she injured other people too.

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 just to go kick it until it surrendered.

Sighing heavily, she shifted on to her elbows, plucking the clover from behind her ear and turning it around in her fingers. “I could USE some luck. I think my rabies are throwing off my game.” Lexi finally sat up, crossing her legs on the grass and reaching up to undo her hair from it’s sloppy bun. She made quick work of braiding the clover in to a small pleat, then twist her hair back up.

“What’s next on Lexi Humiliates Herself Day? I’m NOT bothering with football. I have 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 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 enough energy for running around a lot.

On the minus side…

Knucker side-eyed the track from across the field, where 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 that pranced around quoting things being, well, dramatic. Lexi was dramatic enough without having a whole club helping her do it better.

“Track it is, then. At least I can’t hurt anybody while running.” Lexi pushed herself up off the grass, dusting off blades and bits of dirt as she straightened. 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 running he was going to be overjoyed to spread that news. That red-headed hell-hound had enough ammunition today to last pretty much 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 out so loud, but GOOD. She got their attention.

She could tell she had their attention by the way their eyes were all staring at her. Some of the other hopeful kids- mostly freshmen- had paused mid-stretch in goofy poses. One boy had his knee up to his chest; he hopped in place a couple times before finally putting his foot down.

“Sure that’s a good idea, Ryan?” Owen asked after a brief pause, voice gruff but 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.

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. She sucked at everything. Who was she kidding, anyway? Her and Knucker were the kids in the corner and life was pretty good in that corner.

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

“Girls bleed ALL THE TIME. I’m used to it, DeWhitt.” Oh god. Did she just reference her period? She might as well of said Fight me, Bro! and would have even sounded more cool!

“I mean-” Lexi fumbled for the right words. If she said the wrong thing she was going to sound even more stupid. “I’m standing here, right? I can out run a bearwolf with my arm ripped half off, I could do this…” Great, now she didn’t sound like she was sure of herself at all. Good thing she had been spending all day trying out for things. If her face was red, it would probably just be attributed to the exertion. Or maybe hidden under smudges of dirt.

Lexi threw her arms up in exasperation. “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. The 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, a hand raising up to give him a soldier’s salute since he was shouting orders like some sort of war general. Plus, she’d never have done that to his face. Owen might not hit a girl, but he had no problems tossing one in to the nearest pile of gross stuff.

She turned to give Knucker a big toothy grin and two thumbs up, then bounced out of arm’s reach of Owen to mimic what some of the other hopefuls were doing. A stretch of the arms here, a rotating of the feet 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. Or maybe it was just her center of gravity. Or even the RABIES. Either way, Lexi’s ass hit the dirt when she lost her balance. Only through sheer quick-thinking luck was she able to play it off as her plopping on purpose to do some leg stretches. She even whistled innocently, which was kind of dumb, and likely something she picked up from Knucker.

“Nervous?” a voice chimed in from Lexi’s left. “I kinda am too.”

The speaker was a boy with dark hair, starkly green eyes, and a friendly grin. He was leaning over to touch his toes- and looking really 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- and she’d also 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 could be packed in to a simple statement. Her eyes made a slow trek to bore holes at Owen’s turned back, casting the perfectly matched expression to go with the tone. Lexi had exactly zero ex-boyfriends, but even if she did have one, Owen would be the last guy to ever end up on that list.

“Owen hates me.” she finally explained, tearing her gaze from Owen to peer awkwardly at this new guy. He was DEFINITELY new. Which meant not only did she feel weird having a conversation alone with someone that wasn’t Knucker, there was that added bonus of no previous encounters so she’d have an idea of how to behave and what to expect.

Reason #26 on why she NEEDED to rise the ranks of social popularity.

At least he offered to beat up Owen with her. That was an automatic point in her book. Lexi gave up trying to pretend she knew what to do for stretching, choosing to lean backwards on her hands and frown at her traitorous feet.

“I’m all for kicking his ass, though. …but AFTER we see if I botch running in a circle. I kinda need to make this team.”

“Need to?” he echoed, tilting his head. After a moment though, he laughed and gave her an encouraging smile, shoving her shoulder playfully. “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 faceplanted 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. Is what she was trying to think, midst tapping her fingers lightly on the grass, twisting up her nose again and looking surly. There might’ve been a twinge of pink in her cheeks. If she DID make the team, at least that meant she now had an ally.

Suddenly, she bent forward to make sure her shoelaces were tied good and tight. Lexi added a couple 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 a pre-dinner course of ROCKS. She gave a pitying look to the girl while she hobbled past with her friends.

PLOP! Silvia dropped to her knees next to Knucker, still wearing her cheerleader uniform and a couple of pompoms in her hands. Her hair was twisted up in a perfect pony-tail tied with a ribbon in the school’s colors. Even sitting on her knees she could not seem to sit still.

“YAY OWEN!! MAKE THEM CRY!” she squealed, waving her pompoms at him when he turned around to look in their directly.

Finally she leaned towards Knucker, ‘whispering’ out of the side of her mouth. “Has Lexi come up yet? Margrit wanted me to spy and tell her how badly she messes this up. But don’t tell Margrit I sat down to talk to you.”

Knucker had been pretty preoccupied with keeping an eye on Lexi, and that’s why he didn’t notice Silvia until she was, uh, cheering right beside him. And maybe that sort of startled him, which was why he jumped. Also he may have been 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.

Meanwhile, Lexi’s new ally/soda-bringer 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 practically went blurry. He was crossing the meter marker well before Lexi could count to ten. As he did so, he turned to jog backwards until he came to a halt.

“How’d I do, captain?” he yelled back, practically bouncing.

“…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 jogged back over. Owen started speaking to him in low tones, but Lexi caught most of the conversation:

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

“Yup. Track team since middle school.”

“You should’ve said as much.”

“But I wanted to get in fair and square! Everyone else has 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 that was said and done, New Guy made his way back toward Lexi. He opened his mouth, but before he could speak…

“Ryan,” boomed Owen’s pissy-sounding voice. “Are you still here? It’s your turn.”

“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 and Chase’s performance holding her pompoms under her chin. She also didn’t seem to mind that Knucker wasn’t her present bestie, nor likely wouldn’t appreciate the assessment of Chase’s cuteness.

Something must have finally registered because she finally shrugged her shoulder 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 in Cheerleading 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, barely even stopping to catch her breath. And 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. She didn’t want to be the reason Lexi fell on her face!

This guy made it all look like a breeze. Not that all the freshman hadn’t with their bumbling and falling. But Lexi was pretty sure her skill set leaned more towards them than this dude and his pro running. Running like a pro? Was that even a real thing? That perturbed look was on her face again. The scrunching of her nose and twist of her mouth. She was about to receive her award for most stupidest runner.

Owen bellowing her name had her leaping to her feet with a start. “HERE!” Lexi swatted stray bits off grass off her clothes, giving the new guy an examining stare. 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 take her place, knowing full well it was trying Owen’s patience. Mostly she was just trying to dig up the last remaining bits of her courage and dignity so she could end her day of 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.

“Crap,” Knucker swore. (For him, that counted as swearing, 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 pom-poms 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. And 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.


Oh Jesus, son of Mary Christ. Owen was almost as intimidating as Margrit (if only because with Owen you knew what sort of physical violence would be coming, where Margrit used all the cunning of SATAN to make you miserable) and Lexi nearly turned around and took off running away from the track. There was maybe a tiny part of her that had a really badass come-back for him, but all of a sudden there was that click of a stopwatch and him saying Now.

“What- EEEEE!” Squealing like an idiot aside and despite the wild flailing of panicked arms, Lexi took off like a bolt. There wasn’t a lot that could go wrong with running, and to her joy 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 that she also realized she had no idea how to STOP gracefully. Lexi skidded as on the asphalt, just where the track was beginning to turn, her arms windmilling in an attempt to keep her balance. Gravity inevitably won the fight and she went face planting in to the grass.

At least she didn’t eat rocks.

“I’M OKAY.” A thumb went up in the air as she rolled over.

“I knew she smelled funny.” Silvia mumbled in awe. There wasn’t time to ask her what that was all about, though, because she was 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.” Then with a flounce and a swish of her pompoms, Silvia skipped away.

“Lexi!” Knucker was up on his feet in an instant, scrambling over despite 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 instant 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 this time that Knucker got a good look at Lexi’s time. And 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 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 out in reflex. Because, aside from a 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 been crashing on some body part all afternoon, this was pretty much the natural order of things. 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’s way-too-mothering searching up until he looked like he swallowed a bumble bee. She had to grab Owen’s hand to keep the stopwatch still so she could read the numbers. “So, this is good, right? Maybe?” She nudged at Knucker’s shoulder, half to shake him out of his stunned silence, and more 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. 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 Owen.

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 Ryan on the shoulder (but 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,” he 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. That pleased as pie, cat-ate-canary grinning struggle to hold back some sassy, smartassed remark that would probably get her punched right in the face.

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

“Heeeee.” When she slid in to an unusually pointy-toothed grin and almost couldn’t swallow the smug laugh, Lexi grabbed Knucker by the shoulders, twist him and around and started shoving. The farther out of reach they got the more her giggling sounded like a maniacal evil villain, until they were entering the school and it subsided back to normal, excited heehees.

And she couldn’t fucking stop bouncing. Lexi still had a hold of Knucker’s arm as she jumped.

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

“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 let go of his arm only to throw hers up in the air. Her victory bouncing continued, now in a wide circle around him. She didn’t know where the energy came from, and at that moment she didn’t care.

“Phase Two: Infiltrate Sports has been completed! …as good as completed, 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 finally made her stop bouncing. Her cheeks were flushed, but she wasn’t even close to being out of breath. Lexi rest her hands on her hips, casting a small frown at him. The Best Senior Year Ever was supposed to be 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 to let him onto the track team. But he wasn’t about to burst Lexi’s bubble. “You know I’ll be there anyway.”

Knucker frowned.

“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. For once, she totally deserved detention, but this was going to be the most agonizingly awkward detention in the history of all punishments. “Why did I have to open my stupid mouth.” Lexi ruffled Knucker’s hair, and dragged her feet down the hall to the girl’s locker room.

Thanks to Knucker’s continuing good luck, Lexi managed to get a quick shower and back in to her normal clothes without Margrit showing up to assault her. The girl must have still been tied up with tryouts. Or maybe even permanently injured and out of school for the rest of the year? Lexi could dream.

Once she slung her pack over her shoulder, Lexi dragged her feet even more through the school and back to Mr. Anderson’s class. It briefly occurred to her that dicking around could add more time on to her punishment, but the dread was too strong. By the time she reached the door, she was feeling about an inch tall. Lexi crept through the threshold, trying to be as invisible as possible as she slipped in to seat.

Hopefully someone else today was a bigger asshole than she was, and she could walk out of here without some strongly worded letter for her Dad.

Unfortunately, that’s where Lexi’s/Knucker’s luck wore out.

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

Horror of horrors. She was the only kid in the room.

The teacher was at his desk, rummaging around through a drawer. He pulled out a mouldy-looking old book and flipped through a few pages before he finally glanced up at her through his glasses.

“I heard you were trying out for the sports teams,” he remarked. Sometime between Lexi’s mouthing off and the end of the day, he’d lost that “young, cool guy” vibe and settled into something much more teacherly. “Did you make any of them?”

She looked like she swallowed a frog. Lexi felt like she swallowed a frog. Everything about the teacher was weird and wrong. He was too young. He looked like a dork in those glasses. And here he was reading a book that looked like it came from HOGWARTS. Lexi once again had that overwhelming urge to say something REALLY STUPID.

At least this time she managed to keep it to herself.

“Uh. Maybe… I only sort-of made an ass- UH, jerk of myself during Track. Results aren’t posted until tomorrow.” She slid a little lower in her seat, giving the empty chairs in the room a pitiful look. Why was no one else here. Lexi’s gaze moved towards the window, a plot of jumping out of it coming to mind.

“Track?” He grinned a little, 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 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 class all year, Lexi, and I need you to respect me or it’s going to be a problem. And I don’t really want to have a problem with one of my students right off the bat.”

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

Apparently a day of feeling guilty and an afternoon of getting 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 throw over her desk and tell him to shove it. To tackle him and bite him real good.

Holy shit, I’m a psycho! Fffff-

This was NOT COOL. She was not going to tackle and bite a teacher, what kind of rabies infested monster was she turning in to? Lexi tapped her fingernails on the desktop, then paused to look at them with a frown. They weren’t quite that long earlier, were they? She straightened in her seat and stuffed her hands under her desk.

“I’m sorry.” she forced out quickly. “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 sinking her teeth in to her newest teacher seemed like such a fun idea.


“You had a rough night last night, as I’ve been informed,” he allowed, giving her a quick once-over and tilting his head. Maybe it was Lexi’s imagination, but it felt like he drew back a little too, giving her more room to breathe… but he was still sitting right there. “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 tilting backwards to the point her head was hanging over her chair, and her limbs became limp floppy noodles. All of the fight and fire melted out of her. Not only was the entire student body talking about her (and not in the way she WANTED) apparently all the teachers were in on the gossip too. Didn’t teachers have something better to talk about? Like lesson plans or taxes?

And SURE she tooootally wants 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 side-ways 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 at him completely unable to put him in to 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, all day has just sucked when all I really wanted to do this year was take over the school with my best friend and make my mortal enemy cry.”

“I will take your teacherly advice in to consideration.” 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 turned out. It’s not like she could embarrass herself any further today. Maybe a teacher-ally could make her school domination plans easier.

“Okay,” said Mr. Anderson, drumming his fingers on the 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. In gilded, curling letters, the title read, “The Call of the Wild by Jack London”. The cover was a bit faded, with a bit of thread curling up from the spine at the top.

“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 as a teacher or whatever, but he was clearly a huge dork. Somehow that softened her impressions 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 dubious look on her face betrayed her less nice thoughts, though, and was probably made worse by the quirk of her mouth suggesting she was about to laugh at him. 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 then the first few pages and 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 kind of 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 please. Let me know what you think of the book when you get a chance.”

And just like that, Lexi was apparently free to go.

The Silent Pines Woods looked a lot less spooky in the daylight. Not that the sun would last for long. Lexi and Knucker had a small window of opportunity to retrace her fearful dash and find her phone. Her Dad expected her home in time for dinner WITH it, otherwise not only was she going to have to be Margrit’s slave just because of the car incident, Lexi was going to have to work her ass off to pay for a new one. Just because he owned a gas station didn’t mean he was made of a money. Something her Dad liked to repeat over and over and over again to the extent that Lexi was entertaining the idea of running away from home if she didn’t find it.

“I think I took off this way.” she grunted, kicking around at the leaves on the forest floor. After her not-so-bad detention, Lexi told it all to Knucker with excruciating detail. All the way down to her conclusion that Mr. Anderson was probably cool, but mostly a huge dork. For now, she was forgiven and wouldn’t have to worry about any more detentions.

“If we’re lucky, maybe that thing will come back and finish me off.” She kind of regretted it after she said it, and was immediately looking up warily to make sure nothing was lurking in the bushes or up in the trees. “Ugh, it’s probably out of battery too, or this would be a million times easier and we could just call it!”

“We’re getting close to where the party was,” Knucker commented when he 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 was he also really didn’t like littering and if he didn’t pick it up now, it was a pretty sure bet that no one else would.

“Do you want me to try calling it anyway?” he offered.

He kind of really 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 people-hungry animal 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. Maybe it was the fact that when Lexi had shown him the book, Knucker hadn’t had the heart to tell her but he recognized it as a first fucking freaking edition and who just gives 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 the direction, though she really didn’t have a clue where and which way was the best to look. Lexi couldn’t remember if she ran in a straight line, or zig-zagged, or 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. There was the earthy dirt smells. Something really flowery and sweet. At some point she got a strong whiff of something dead, which nearly made her stumble face first over a tree stump. No dead bodies or animals were in her immediate sight, though. Lexi assumed it must have been carried on the wind.

Now her nose was itching and she was rubbing it even more furiously. Wait, she spotted something plasticy-blue that might be her phone! Lexi stooped and snatched it up. Her nose wrinkled as she turned, dangling it at Knucker. “What is this even-” It was a odd looking old doll in a faded blue dress. Half it’s hair was missing and on it’s little plastic arms, legs, and face were a bunch of symbols drawn on with black marker. As if the woods needed more creepy things in it.

…that mischievous look crossed her features.

Lexi inched towards Knucker with it!

As soon as Knucker laid eyes on Lexi’s prize, his 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 probably 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 fuck mess around with it.

He’d already had his phone in hand to try calling Lexi’s, and as he stumbled over a tree root, his thumb slipped on the button.

The distinctly dramatic chords of a Fall Out Boy song started playing from a few feet away. Knucker’s head whipped around, perking up at the prospect of actually finding Lexi’s phone.

Which unfortunately were dashed when instead of a phone he spied a towering figure stepping out from between the trees.

Knucker yelped and lost his balance, crashing to the ground.

“Is this yours?” the newcomer’s voice growled. Once he got a good luck, Knucker realized he was just… a guy. A really intimidating, really tall guy, but just a regular guy nonetheless. He was maybe a few years older than them, dressed in a worn-looking grey t-shirt and jeans and- huh. No shoes.

There was something about the guy that looked sort of familiar, but Knucker couldn’t quite place it.

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

“You’re trespassing,” the guy continued, eyes fixed on Lexi as he shook the phone at her impatiently. “This is private property.”

When Knucker yelped and fell over, her first instinct was attack the monster! That involved her also making a not-so-brave sound and chucking the creepy doll at their new nemesis. Unfortunately, her throw completely overshot her target and went sailing over his head to land somewhere in the distant bushes.

By then, he was talking and Lexi realized this was a person. She mentally cursed Knucker for startling her and making them both look like total dumbasses. (Because it was totally his fault!)

Lexi moved to grab Knucker’s arm and pull him up from the ground, casting the stranger a wary look. Why the hell was he in the middle of the woods with no shoes? There were brambles and sharp pointy things everywhere!

“We were looking for my phone. That’s mine.” she gestured with her chin, because her hands were busy keeping a tight grip on Knucker. Not that she was scared or anything, but if this guy turned out to be a wood 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 told them. “It’s not safe out here after dark.”

He glanced back 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.”

“Wai- How do you know that?!” Knucker stammered, eyebrows knitting together. In return, he received a withering glare.

“My sister told me,” snapped the stranger.


“Go home,” the man cut him off, stone-faced. “Get some rest. You’ll need it.”

Now random barefoot lunatics in the woods knew who she was. Lexi figured his sister must go to their school, but with the nature of her luck, the whole town was probably talking about her.

She wanted to say 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 the Silent Pines Woods would probably end with both her and Knucker getting axe murdered. Then the bearwolf that took a chunk out of her yesterday would be gnawing on their bodies.

Lexi didn’t even want to KNOW what the guy meant by you’ll need the rest..

“C’mon. Lets get out of here.” she practically hissed at Knucker. Already backing away and tugging him along with her. It wasn’t until she almost made the both of them tumble 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 her back on him.

But that’s when Knucker blinked, and when he glanced back again, the man 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.

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