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Setting Fire 03: The Girl in the Steelers Cap
“Alex!” she cried, spinning in a circle. The sound startled a murder of crows nearby, their black wings beating as they took flight and scattered. Shrieking, the girl clapped her hands over her ears. “Alex, please, where are you? I’m scared!”
Behind her, tall dark shapes loomed like reaching giants. It took a moment to place that they were transmission towers. Power lines stretched out across an overcast sky and straight on into forever.
Lexi looked down at her hands. They were… weird. Too large. Covered in what looked like blood.
When she lifted her eyes again to the road in front of her, she spied something up ahead. Something blue, abandoned on the wayside. Her phone? She’d been looking for her phone, hadn’t she? She padded forward.
She was going too fast. So fast that she couldn’t stop, her feet gaining seemingly endless momentum even as she dug in her heels. She skidded right past her target, tumbling down to the dirt path in a pile of gangly limbs. Her arms flopped out to either side of her and braced for impact. One of her hands fell on something soft.
Lexi picked it up.
It was a child’s denim headband.
“Alex!” Up ahead, something large darted across the gap between the dark trunks of the pine trees. “Alex! Don’t leave me! Alex!”
Lexi’s head suddenly hit the mattress when her pillow disappeared out from under her. Before she could utter out a complaint, that same pillow ploomfed against her head.
“Your alarm has been going off for thirty minutes, you’re going to be late for school at this rate,” complained her Dad. Jacob Ryan didn’t stand around waiting for her to get up either. He just hit her again with the pillow to make double-sure she was awake, then strode out the door grumbling something cliche and OLD about back in his day under his breath.
She shifted to her elbows, pillow sliding away and onto the floor as she cast her ajar bedroom door a scowl. Lexi finally sat up, rubbing her face with both her hands to try and wipe away that bleary-eyed, groggy feeling.
The dream left her a little unsettled. It wasn’t particularly odd or even a nightmare, but it gave her that creepy off sensation. Subconsciously her hand rose up to rub her shoulder where that tingly feeling lingered the strongest.
“I’M UP!” she shouted back, throwing off her covers and dragging her feet to the bathroom. “So annoying.”
Her muttered complaint went unheard—but not the slamming of the bathroom door. That was hard enough to rattle the picture frames on the hallway wall. The funny part was that she didn’t actually MEAN to slam the door. Lexi cringed and waited with bated breath for her Dad to have a fit about it, and sighed with relief at the silence.
But her morning just kept getting weirder and more frustrating.
Lexi had a ritual every morning, just like most teenage girls did. Use the toilet; take a shower; brush her teeth; fuss with her make-up, hair, and clothes. Maybe hers drew the line at simple smokey eyeliner and making sure there weren’t any knots in her hair, but there was still a process. She had to shave her legs TWICE today. Somehow she didn’t do a good enough job the first time, is what she figured. Then she nearly stabbed herself with her own toenails, her TOENAILS, and in that process discovered hairy spots on her feet as well. Batches of fuzz were winding up everywhere. Apparently the universe had just decided she was old enough to inherit the Ryan family body hair gene and turn her into Bigfoot.
She had it all under control though. Lexi was clean, smooth and ready to put on her face as Knucker’s Nana loved to say.
The second she peered at herself in the mirror she shrieked.
Lexi pawed at her cheeks and chin. She had a beard. It wasn’t even a REAL beard. It was the kind of wiry, twisted patches of hair that fourteen-year-old boys had before they could actually grow a beard. She scrambled to fetch her razor out of her shower. The last thing Lexi needed was to go to school with even MORE fuel for the torment fires.
A fist pounded on the bathroom door.
“Alexa, for god’s sake, other people need to use the bathroom.”
“I’ll be done in a MINUTE! I’m having ISSUES.”
“You’ve had your period for five years now, Alexa, you know what to do by now!”
“DUDE, IT’S NOT MY PERIOD, OKAY.”
A second later Lexi swung open the door, clean shaven AGAIN and without a hint of facial hair. She glared at her dad, who peered back with a weary, unimpressed expression before he stepped past her into the bathroom.
Her battle continued in the kitchen, when the microwave decided it wanted to be a huge piece of shit and not register when she was pressing buttons. After the seventh try Lexi got so frustrated she smacked it with the heel of her hand. Normally a couple solid smacks and the thing would behave.
This time the top caved in and the door fell off.
Lexi was still blinking, dumbly at the fallen door when her Dad entered the kitchen. He didn’t say anything at first. Jacob was just as confused as his daughter at seeing the microwave dented at the door laying at her feet.
“Am I double-grounded?” Lexi blurted out, kicking herself after the fact. All she had to do was keep quiet, maybe he wouldn’t have thought of that!
Jacob let out a world-weary sigh. “You’re going to pick up some things for me after school.”
Lexi was totally okay with this, and made sure to keep her mouth shut through the rest of breakfast.
Outside of her issues in the morning, the rest of Lexi’s school day went without a hitch. IF she ignored Margrit giving her demonic looks during Calculus. Lexi was unfortunate enough to be trapped not just with Margrit and Owen, but also their frienemy Angela Mercy who thankfully wasn’t interested in helping Margrit torture the student body, but was still loud and intimidating. Being outnumbered and without Knucker, Lexi spent the last period of the day tucked away in a corner hiding under her book.
The second the bell rang, she was out of there. Normally she’d meet up with Knucker outside on the front steps, but they were officially grounded for the rest of the week. Maybe even the rest of their life. That meant Knucker was stuck getting picked up by Sheriff Dad and held hostage for ride-alongs, while Lexi was going to have to WALK to do all the errands her own dad put her up to today. As she glanced down at her feet, she second-guessed this whole dressing cool thing. After all the weird hairy problems, she opted for skinny jeans and a plaid button-up shirt that was actually fitted instead of looking like she grabbed some old flannel out of her dad’s closet. The shoes were the problem, though. Lexi was kind of digging the whole look country-punk look, but even with thick, chunky heels she was still getting used to walking in them.
Her whole sense of equilibrium had been off lately. Last thing she wanted was to fall on her ass just trying to WALK.
Turned out, she overthought the entire thing. Once she got going and quit dwelling on it, Lexi got lost in other kinds of thoughts. When dropping off some bills at the post office, she wondered how she’d get her homework done when she had track practice. Could she get Knucker to do it? He never did do her homework for her, even when she sulked. But maybe this time she had a good excuse. In the library while returning some books, she tried to figure out when her dad actually had time to read between working at the gas station and fixing cars. Did he do it just to meet women? When even was the last time her dad talked to a woman?
Her last stop was the downtown automotive shop where her dad always special-ordered parts. She passed the list over to the cashier, wrote down when they could be picked up, and then she was officially all done. Lexi stepped outside, glowering at the sky. How long did all that crap take? Fishing her phone out of her front pocket (which was apparently a huge pain in the ass with skinny jeans—why didn’t these things have deeper pockets?), she checked the time. Three hours were wasted walking around town for lame errands, when all of that could have been done in twenty minutes if Knucker drove her around.
Scoffing under her breath, she tilted her phone to thumb out that exact complaint to her friend as she took a turn towards home.
A low wolf-whistle interrupted her thoughts.
“Hey there, Red!” followed a young male voice. When Lexi tore her eyes away from her texting, she spotted its owner right away. He was tall and tan and had a broad, toothy grin and he was flanked by a quartet of his friends. They were Lexi’s age, but she was pretty sure they didn’t go to her school if only because they were actually talking to her. All five of them were wearing rich kid clothes. Just t-shirts and jeans, but you could tell those jeans cost three times as much as even Lexi’s nice new pair.
Lex figured these were St. Cyprian’s boys. Silent Pines wasn’t exactly a big town. There were only three schools offering 9-12 education—and obviously, Silent Pines High was where most kids went. But there was also the Koowahoke Charter School, built back in the 90’s when a group of Lenape Nation members had moved up from the Mountville area… and then there was St. Cyprian’s.
“You don’t look like a mechanic, sweetheart,” the boy told her as the group approached from a little ways down the sidewalk, fanning out around her. “What’s a girl like you doing in a place like this?”
There he went again. Lexi was still convinced he wasn’t talking to her and even glanced around behind her to see if some other girl was nearby. All she saw was a bunch of rich dudes lurking about like they were some kind of gang. Of course SHE belonged there. Lexi probably knew more about cars than these dirtbags did. They all looked like they just walked about of an Abercrombie & Fitch or something. She wasn’t intimidated in the slightest.
“…Why are you talking to me?”
Okay, maybe she was the tiny bit irked by a sudden group of strangers. It wasn’t like school, where she at least knew and was familiar with everyone there, even if she didn’t know them on a personal basis. Lexi already met a couple new people this week. She was so not ready to try her hand at a bunch of random weirdos in expensive t-shirts.
“I’m actually leaving a place like this, so. Bye.” Maybe if she didn’t know they were going to do that same spiel all the guys in her Auto Mechanics class did about a girl and car stuff, she wouldn’t have had that slight bit of annoyance in her voice. She thumbed out another message to Knucker, this time about expensive jeans as she stepped to the side to squeeze between the dude and one of his friends.
“Hey whoa, whoa, Red. What’s your hurry?” the talkative one said as he caught Lexi’s arm. His grip was just a little too tight. “Don’t be shy. Come get a coffee with me and the guys.”
Even though the guy was tall, Lexi was taller in her heels. It was easy to forget she was such a beanpole when she only ever hung around with one person.
“Man, I think she thinks she’s too good for us or something,” one of the other boys chimed in. He was smaller, blond. He shoved his hands in his pockets and gave Lexi a cold stare.
“Nah, that’s not true, is it?” The tall one smiled wider at Lexi. “We’re making friends.”
“I HAVE a friend already,” she retorted, twisting her arm free and then rubbing the spot to get that skin-crawly feeling to go away. It’s not like she was weird about her space or anything, but there was a grand total of four people that ever actually touched her. This guy and his troll smile that was way too reminiscent of Margrit’s were definitely not on that list.
How much of a dork would she be if she took off running down the street? Everyone at her own school already knew she was a coward. It wouldn’t make much difference if she had a shitty reputation at another. Lexi just didn’t want to end up chucked into a dumpster and have a second pair of expensive new school clothes ruined.
“…Besides, I’m grounded. I have to get home,” she added quickly, because the blond one was starting to get all scowl-y like she’d insulted them. That was how things always played out right before she ended up in a locker or a toilet.
“Ohhh, she told you, Marcus,” laughed a boy wearing a dark green t-shirt. Lexi’s would-be friend—Marcus, evidently—flashed him a dark, steely look in answer.
“You’d better hurry home then, Red,” was all he said, however.
This time Lexi didn’t wait around to hear more. She backed up to continue on her way, making sure she kept any nearby trash cans in her sight just in case. What she didn’t think to keep an eye on were the boys.
She passed by the old grungy office building on the corner and continued on down the block. It was a brisk day, the chill wind harsh against her cheeks. She glanced up at the sky, watching a pinwheeling bird swoop in a slow circle past a cloud, and pulled out her phone again when it buzzed.
Midway through reading Knucker’s reply, Lexi heard voices and stopped to glance over her shoulder. The group of St. Cyprian’s boys had turned the corner and were walking towards her, laughing and shoving each other. Marcus caught her eye.
“Sure you haven’t changed your mind?” he called. “Looks like we’re all headed the same way.”
Lexi realized this might’ve been the first time in her life she was actually worried about being followed. Her dad was best friends with the Sheriff. Her own best friend was the Sheriff’s kid. They may have had trouble at school or whenever they had the misfortune of running in to Margrit elsewhere, but the rest of the time? Lexi couldn’t think of a single moment where anyone had actually approached them, followed them, menaced with a creepy van, or otherwise lurked around corners.
She also realized it was always “we” and “us” and never just her alone by herself. If she couldn’t walk down a stupid street without Knucker, how the hell was she supposed to survive when he left for college?
“Uuugh! Go walk down some other street, you jerkwads!” she shouted over her shoulder.
Then she did run. Only far enough to turn the corner around the nearest building, mostly because she nearly fell on her face when she did. Luckily, despite her overconfidence in running with heels, Lexi did have one advantage over a bunch of stuck-up rich boys. They didn’t know this side of town the way she did.
Ignoring her irrational fear of dumpsters, she darted past a couple to take a detour through the trucker’s parking lot of some store. Once she squeezed through the opening of a broken fence on the other side, she was right back where she was supposed to be: on the street heading home, hopefully with a few less idiots behind her.
She nearly stumbled on her heels right into a wall of Marcus. He grabbed her wrists to steady her and smiled.
“Careful, sweetheart.” He eyed her up and down, and Lexi could see his friends standing behind him a few feet away. Green Shirt and the fourth boy, who was thin and reedy and dressed in blue, were leering; the blond boy was staring dead at Lexi, cold and stone-faced. “You don’t look happy to see me! Don’t be like that.”
“Damn, she’s tall,” said Green Shirt. “Sure she’s not part pine tree?”
“Don’t mind Justin,” Marcus told Lexi. He was still holding her wrists. “Give me a smile.”
What did they do, run down the street to catch up with her? How freaking creepy was that! Lexi especially didn’t like that he was so deadpan serious. Like he actually expected her to. She’d thought a demonic red-head’s sanguine sweet threats had been terrifying, but for some reason this guy asking her to smile made her skin crawl.
This was dumb. Knucker was taller than this dude and she could wrestle him to the grass. Apparently putting on nice clothes and high heels turned her in to a baby!
“How about you all eat a dick,” she retorted in frustration. “Get off me!”
Lexi tried to shake her wrists free. Her bad case of rabies had to be wearing down, because none of that nice microwave-punching strength was helping her out today. When she couldn’t pull free she threw all her weight into shoving him.
It worked; he stumbled backward, fell, and landed on his elbows on the asphalt. Lexi had just enough time to feel smug about it before one of the other boys laughed and Marcus’s face went red.
“Fuck you, bitch!” he snapped, back on his feet in an instant, and then he was grabbing Lexi by her hair and hauling her towards the broken fence behind them. White-hot pain flashed across her scalp, followed by a sickening ripping sound. His arm pressed against her throat as he shoved her against the partially rotted wood and leaned in close enough that his nose poked hers. “You’re going to regret that.”
This wasn’t a busy street, Lexi remembered. It was a side street, little more than an alley, mainly used for thru-traffic; there were no storefronts facing them on this stretch of the road. She thought frantically to look around for help, but she was tunnel-visioning; all she could see was the trio of boys standing in a semicircle like waiting vultures. Waiting for what, exactly?
Her panicked gaze landed again on the boy with blond hair, and for a moment, Lexi swore that his cold, dead eyes had gone jet black.
“Now,” Marcus said again, “Tell me you’re sorry.”
“I’m sorry,” Lexi heard herself squeak.
“Good girl. Now—”
“Get the fuck off of her!” a voice shouted from directly to Lexi’s left, and Lexi caught a flash of metal reflecting in the sun. There was a dull sound that reminded Lexi of a single, muffled knock as the tip of a baseball bat crashed down on Marcus’s shoulder. It fell useless to his side as he cried out and whirled towards his assailant.
The girl brandishing the bat at Marcus was even taller than Lexi. She wore a plaid shirt, ripped jeans, and scuffed combat boots; her long brown hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Because the sun was behind her, Lexi couldn’t see her face. All she could see was the Pittsburgh Steelers logo on her baseball cap.
She shook the tip of the bat at Marcus.
“You chucklefucks are lucky it isn’t a gun!” she yelled. “Back off!”
Lexi couldn’t explain it. It all had to be psychological, because she sure as hell wasn’t sorry and she was more than happy to take it all back the second she wasn’t being pinned to a fence or being stared down by some guy’s roaming black contacts. She hadn’t thought his eyes were that dark, but they must’ve been.
Or maybe he had cracked her head against the old fence and that was her brain leaking out.
Her hand jumped up to her hair and she rubbed her fingers against her scalp to check for blood. At the very least Lexi knew he got a fist full of her hair. It was still burning where he pulled, but there were no signs of blood.
Lexi’s second instinct was to check her new clothes to make sure he hadn’t ripped anything, but she was suddenly finding herself a lot more brave when she wasn’t the only target in the lane.
“Yeah, get fucking lost!” she shouted, stooping to pick up a sizable chunk of broken brick. Lexi hurled it at the boys, and though it completely missed her new buddy Marcus, it might’ve done a nice bit of damage if the jerk behind him hadn’t dodged out of the way.
“Or I can call the Sheriff!”
That probably took away all of the badass points she might’ve earned, but for once, Lexi was glad Knucker’s dad was a cop.
Though Marcus fell back, clutching his arm, Green Shirt—Justin—made a grab for the girl’s bat. She dodged around his reaching hand, and his efforts were rewarded with a jab of the bat handle in his eye and a second blow to his gut.
“I will call the cops,” Lexi’s savior insisted, and something niggled in Lexi’s memory as she heard that light drawl come out. “Anyone else want to try somethin’?”
“We should go,” the blond boy said. When Lexi looked his way, she had to blink, because he’d come closer now and his eyes were a very pale blue. What she’d seen earlier must have been a trick of the light. “Marcus.”
“Yeah, okay.” Marcus shot Lexi an insincere, pained smile. “Didn’t mean to cause any trouble.”
The girl in the Steelers cap watched the boys’ retreating backs until they got to the end of the road, then turned toward Lexi and lowered her bat. Now that Lexi could see her face clearly, she realized why that voice had sounded familiar. It was the girl she’d promised a soda in the school showers the day before.
“Hey,” she said. “You okay?”
“Yeah, I’m cool,” Lexi spat back with a lot more anger than she actually intended, especially considering the girl just saved her ass. She wasn’t hurt, not really, but Lexi still found herself taking several pacing steps and trying to shake the sharp crawling feeling out of her arms. And her hands. Her hands were shaking. It took shoving them into her back pockets and then bending forward ever so slightly to keep them still and to actually be able to breathe and swallow at the same time.
This was worse than nearly getting eaten by a bearwolf in the woods. At least then no one saw her screaming and flailing like a dumbass. There was just the aftermath of gore and her hanging all over stupid Owen DeWhitt. Now she was having a very hard time meeting the eyes of a girl who was naked the first time they’d actually spoken.
Lexi heaved a heavy sigh.
“I’m—I’m good,” she muttered, finding that focusing all her annoyance on an empty fast food bag rolling by from the wind was helpful. “Sorry, I mean thanks. Thank you.”
Luckily, the other girl didn’t seem to be offended by Lexi’s rudeness. She was leaning on her bat, one hand in the pocket of her jeans, waiting patiently for Lexi to stop freaking out.
“No prob,” she answered. She lifted a hand to tug her cap’s brim down a few hairs, like she thought it might suddenly fall off. “You, uh… Do you need a ride or anything? I’ve got a bike.”
Yeah, Lexi could see that happening. Just hopping on the handlebars of some girl’s bicycle and trying to trek it all the way up and down the hills back to the gas station, where she would then have to explain why she lived behind a gas station. Even if this girl was crazy tall and could maybe see around Lexi, Lexi still knew from experience that she and bikes were a bad mix.
Except, she had been cursing her dad for making her walk around town. Not to mention having a repeat meeting with those boys out on the more country streets where there wasn’t going to be some bat-swinging football chick didn’t sound like a great idea. Those jerks were probably riding around in their spotless F-150s as if they ever actually needed a truck, and prowling the street looking for more trouble.
“Uh… well okay,” she responded, still dubious about the whole idea. “I’m not all that good with bikes though.”
The girl gave a strangled laugh. “It’s cool. I’ll give you the helmet.”
She stepped forward, hefting the bat up and over her shoulder, and stuck out a hand to Lexi. Her fingernails were clipped down to nubs, her palm calloused and smudged with dirt, but her fingers were long and slender and almost delicate-looking. Lexi could totally picture them wrapped around a football, easy. She bet the girl’s hand-span was huge.
“C’mon,” said Football Chick.
Wait what. Were they going to hold hands all the way to her bike—oh god, girls were weird—Oh, no. Right. Normal people shook hands or something when they first met. Lexi was officially stupid. She didn’t know this girl’s name, this was what you did.
Jesus Christ, Knucker was going to laugh at her for DAYS. Oh, he’d pretend like he wasn’t, but she’d see that dumb smile he’d try to suppress by biting his lip. Lexi bet he’d go all scatterbrained and forget how to be a person too if he almost died and some giant offered him a ride.
“Yeah I definitely need a helmet,” admitted Lexi amidst trying to pretend her face wasn’t going red from pure embarrassment at her own stupidness. It didn’t help that when she did take the girl’s hand, Lexi’s grip was a little too firm and her arm rigid. She was trying to remember what her dad said about the best handshakes and came off like a robot.
Then she made it worse. With finger guns.
“You lead the way, Shower Girl.” And worse still, apparently. There were good reasons why she didn’t talk to anyone but Knucker.
“…Kendall,” supplied the other girl, ducking her head for a moment and rocking on the heels of her boots. A piece of wispy chestnut-colored hair had fallen free of her ponytail; when she looked back up again, it was framing a face plastered with a lop-sided grin.
She didn’t wait around for Lexi to introduce herself in turn. Kendall had long legs that carried her quickly down the sidewalk, but thankfully Lexi didn’t have trouble keeping up. She carried the bat loosely at her side now that there weren’t any asshole boys to threaten.
“It’s just down the block,” she explained, pointing up ahead. “My bike, I mean. I was just about to hop on when I saw, well. You.”
Lexi didn’t see any bicycles on the sidewalk. There were a couple cars parked down the street, though, and there was…
Oh. Oh. That was a bike, yeah, but it wasn’t at all what Lexi had been picturing. Kendall’s bike was an old Indian Chief with a bright red paint job, straight out of the 1940’s. It wasn’t in top condition, but for a motorcycle that old to run it had to be well-cared-for, Lexi knew that much. Either Kendall knew something about something or she knew someone who knew something. Even if it wasn’t all original parts—which there was no way in hell that it was—there was going to be a lot of upkeep involved. Lexi’s auto shop class knowledge wouldn’t do her a lick of good if that thing broke down on her.
As they got closer, Kendall jogged ahead to open one of the black leather saddlebags hanging off the rear fender. She stuffed her baseball cap inside, then pulled out a helmet that matched the bike and held it out to Lexi.
Lexi took the helmet and stared at the thing as if she’d just been handed a live animal, then side-eyed the bike. Motorcycles were way different from bicycles. If she fell off of this she’d look as mangled as she did the other day.
But motorcycles were really fucking cool, though.
“I hope you broke that dick’s arm right off,” she exclaimed with all sincerity. Lexi tossed her hair to get it out of the way, making sure to tuck the auburn strands behind her ears before she shoved the thing on her head. Lexi kind of felt like she was wearing a fishbowl, but her eagerness to actually take a ride was drowning out all her concerns about looking like a dork. “…I think that might actually be worth a whole case of sodas.”
Kendall huffed with laughter and set to work strapping her bat to the back of the bike. When it was secured, she swung astride.
“Where to?” she asked, leaning an elbow on the handlebars. She looked as comfortable on that bike as if she’d been born sitting in the black leather seat. As tall as she was, she sort of looked like a model, sitting there like that. One who modeled motorcycles… except not at all like the girls on her dad’s magazines. Those girls definitely didn’t wear ratty old jeans and Timberland boots or have hat-hair.
Kendall didn’t even wear makeup—not even eyeliner.
“Sheriff’s office?” she suggested, her lips pursing. “You should report those guys.”
Lexi shook her head and grimaced.
“I should,” she agreed, “but the Sheriff is my dad’s best friend. I’m kind of already in trouble for some perfectly innocent party crashing and auto theft. If he has to call my dad about something else, I’ll be spending the rest of the year in my room sending in all my schoolwork by email.”
She knew it wasn’t her fault a bunch of dudes were being shitty, but her dad would worry and his worry came out in long unnecessary punishments under the pretense of being a protective parent. Sheriff Polk kind of got strict with Knucker, but not like her dad. Dad had her on a leash so tight, if she tugged too hard she’d strangle herself. It’s like he was afraid she was going to leave the house and rob a liquor store or something.
Kendall bit her lip, but after a moment she gave a slow nod.
“I live by Ryan’s Gas Station,” added Lexi.
She found herself faced with a new conundrum once she climbed behind Kendall. She figured out where to put her feet pretty quick, but what the hell was she supposed to do with her hands? Holding onto the seat didn’t feel secure at all, but the only other option was holding onto her. Right that moment the only thing Lexi could think of that’d be more awkward than that would’ve been tumbling off the back of the bike somewhere down the street and having to explain to her dad at the hospital that it was because she was afraid of hugging somebody.
“I’m just going to sneak my arms around here so I don’t die,” she announced in a muttered undertone.
“I don’t bite, I swear.” Kendall kicked up the side-stand with one booted foot and slid a key from her jeans pocket into the ignition. While Lexi was putzing about looping her arms in the most awkward way possible around the other girl’s waist (with a full inch gap of air between them), Kendall did some magic with the clutch and buttons that Lexi missed entirely, and the bike’s engine blazed to life.
“Okay. Uh, hang a little tighter,” Kendall warned, and then she was peeling simultaneously way too slow and way too fast away from the curb.
Lexi totally had this great and clever comeback line about how getting bit was the last thing she was afraid of (hello, single survivor of a hellish animal mauling here), but instead a strangled Oh fuck got blurted out as she tightened her arms around Kendall in a death grip. Any remaining concerns about clinging to a stranger were obliterated in that split second.
Once they’d taken a turn or two, Lexi was finding the experience not all that bad at all. Kendall seemed to know what she was doing (and where she was going, but you could list the gas stations in town on one hand so that wasn’t a shocker), and Lexi found that the ride felt a lot less like she was going to fall off at any second when she relaxed.
“This thing is cool,” she half hissed, half squealed over the rush of wind. Lexi officially knew what she wanted for Christmas.
“Thanks! It was my grandpa’s!” Kendall shouted in answer. Lexi hadn’t really expected her to hear, but of course she could hear her; Lexi was practically talking directly into her ear.
She didn’t try to keep up the conversation though, because they were merging onto the turnpike. Kendall’s ponytail was streaming in the wind behind her head as they zoomed down the open road. Lexi was kind of glad for the helmet now, because it would have smacked her right in the face without it–and her own hair would get all messed up, too.
Ryan’s Gas was on the very outskirts of Silent Pines, sandwiched between the big country turnpike and Devil’s Wood. It was prime real estate for gas, the last stop until you reached Merrywood and the closest fuel point to Lake Glass and all the campgrounds and hiking trails—and it was also the only place in town that catered to RVs. The gas station and auto shop had been in Lexi’s family since about the time Kendall’s bike had been built.
There wasn’t much else out here. Part of the area they called “Old Silent Pines”, where Knucker lived, was visible from the road, but only a few of the smaller brick homes like his. The view was mostly pine trees for miles and miles. Somewhere down a little further was the dirt road leading to a creepy-ass old cemetery that Knucker refused to go to, and past that was the Whelan family farm.
Lexi could see the red canopy of Ryan’s Gas coming up ahead. Kendall pulled into the station and slowed down as they approached the pumps, coming to a full stop and idling in one of the empty parking spots out front of the convenience store area of the station. She turned to look at Lexi over her shoulder.
“So…” she began.
Oh. Right. She should probably get off. Lexi hopped off the bike and onto the asphalt, finding herself bouncing on one foot just a bit to catch her balance. Sea legs (or motorcycle legs, or whatever it was) had her equilibrium out of whack again. Maybe it was just the exhilaration of a fun ride making all the blood rush to her head.
Speaking of which, Lexi pulled off the helmet and ran her hand through her hair trying to smooth out what was now a very staticky mess.
“Here.” She handed it to Kendall. “I now owe you twelve sodas for breaking an arm plus one if you didn’t make the football team. Did you?”
“Nah,” said Kendall, with a wry little twist of her mouth. “They let me try out, but uh… Coach said I should try rugby instead.”
She took the helmet and cradled it on her lap, the fingers of her other hand tapping against the handlebars of her bike. Her hair was windswept and not much better than Lexi’s.
“I haven’t decided if I’m gonna,” she went on. “What about you? Do you know yet if you made track?”
“Maybe you should go back and knock them all down again,” she commented with a frown. That had to suck. Seeing as how the girl was a giant and could handle sports equipment way better than Lexi ever could, she probably would have been awesome on the football team. What were they being choosy for anyway? They needed better players.
“They posted the sheet up for track today so you are looking at the newest uh… runner person.” Were they really just called runners? Lexi was going to have to figure out if they had a cooler name. In the meantime she scratched the back of her head, rubbing her fingers over that sore spot where her hair had been pulled.
“I’ll have to go to practice now once a week, I guess. Anyway, that’s thirteen sodas for you. I’d get you one now, but I’m still grounded for a few more days.”
“Then hit me up in a couple days,” replied Kendall, flashing a grin. “Got a pen in that backpack?”
Lexi did, in fact; she’d been using one of her dollar store knockoff Bics to check off her dad’s errand list, so it was sitting by itself in the side compartment and easy to get to. When Lexi stepped forward to hand it over with a totally unnecessary and weird flourish, Kendall gingerly grabbed her wrist.
“Here,” she said, uncapping the pen with her teeth and starting to neatly jot numbers onto the back of Lexi’s hand. Both of her feet were planted on the ground now, keeping her bike steady between her knees. “Gimme a text when you’re free. Unless, y’know, you need a jailbreak.”
“Ooookay.” Writing the number on her hand was totally unnecessary, Lexi thought. She could’ve just pulled out her phone directly and tapped it in there. She wasn’t sure if getting somebody’s number counted as part of her dad’s punishment no-no list. It had never actually happened before.
“A jailbreak is starting to sound more and more likely,” Lexi admitted, taking a few steps back and quickly holstering her hands in her back pocket before she started up with the finger guns again. Where did she even learn that? Who did that?! “I’ll probably see you at schoooool, then. Right?”
“Uh, yeah. Guess so.” Kendall slipped her shiny red helmet on over her head. Unlike Lexi, she lowered the visor, but not before adding a mumbled “Later, alligator.”
It wasn’t until Lexi watched the back of her plaid shirt disappear down the turnpike towards town that she realized she’d never even told Kendall her own name.
An ominous feeling had followed Knucker like a shadow all day. Maybe it was just the pounding headache behind his eyes that had him massaging his temples every other minute. (Could you get a hangover the day AFTER the day after?) Maybe he was just freaking out about Lexi being on the track team, or any number of the other alarming changes that his best friend was going through.
It had only gotten worse when Lexi had left on her own to go do errands for her dad. By the time Knucker was in the back of his dad’s squad car, he was basically reduced to holding his head in his hands.
“Kid, you okay?” Sheriff Polk was frowning at his son in the rear-view mirror. “You look like you’re gonna be sick.”
“Can I please go to the library?” Knucker blurted. “I know I’m grounded, but—”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Please,” he begged. “I have a thing I really need to research and the school library doesn’t cut it, you know that, and I can’t use the internet when I’m grounded and you said not to research on my phone anymore because I’ll go blind—”
“Jesus,” interrupted his dad. “Okay, okay, calm down. You wanna tell me what this is about?”
Knucker’s mouth snapped shut.
“…Homework,” he answered, stuffing his hands in his pockets.
“Bullshit,” replied the Sheriff, eyeing his son with overwhelming skepticism. Crap, why did Knucker’s dad have to be a cop?! There was a tense, long, incredibly awkward moment as they stared at each other in the mirror and Knucker tried to look as innocent and unoffensive and small in the backseat as possible (and failed entirely, he was pretty sure).
The Sheriff sighed. “Are you meeting Lexi at the library?”
“No,” promised Knucker. “I swear. I really just need to do some research. It’s… It’s personal.”
“…We’re gonna talk about this later, son,” his dad warned. “Don’t think you’re out of it. But I guess I should just be happy I have a kid who wants to go to the library when he’s grounded and actually asked.”
“Thanks, Dad,” Knucker told him, slumping.
“Don’t thank me yet. I’m dropping you off and I’ll be picking you up in two hours. You’d better be exactly where I left you, you got that? Or you’re grounded for a whole month.”
The Silent Pines Library wasn’t exactly bustling on any day of the week, but on the Tuesday of the first week of school, it was practically a ghost town. Most kids Knucker’s age were still clinging to their summer freedom and not yet ready to jump straight back into the semester-long slog of books and research.
Knucker, obviously, was not most kids his age.
He wasn’t the only one, though. There was a teenager who Knucker had never seen in his life standing by the front desk and chatting with the librarian. He had dark hair with a bit of curl to it and was wearing a grey t-shirt, jeans, and leather shoes that looked like they cost more than Knucker’s whole outfit combined. He had a matching leather satchel over his shoulder. He turned to look at Knucker as he got closer, and Knucker inexplicably felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end.
“Hello,” said the stranger. “I’m sorry, am I in your way?”
“No,” stammered Knucker, realizing in a mortified rush that he’d been staring. (He really needed to stop just gawking at people.) “I was just—uh.”
The guy tilted his head, then turned back to the librarian. “Thank you for your help, miss.”
“You’re welcome,” she replied in a misty tone that Knucker had never heard her use before. The other boy straightened up and walked past Knucker toward the entrance. For a brief moment, he clapped Knucker on the shoulder.
“Ask her about what they keep in the back,” he mentioned in an undertone. Knucker blinked after him.
What the fuck was that? he asked himself, not even bothering to edit his own thoughts. The pounding in his skull had reached a crescendo. All he could hear now was a dull roar.
Knucker was beginning to recognize that underpinning of dread that had been nipping at his heels all day. It was a delayed epiphany, a creeping and slow-dawning realization, that his life was never ever ever going to be the same again.