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Setting Fire 01: Once Bitten
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.”
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.
“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.
“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.
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.”
“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.
“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.”
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!”
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.
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.