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Setting Fire 04: Buck
“She lives in the freaking White House!” exclaimed Lexi as the beat-up old pickup truck rounded the final curve of the Berkshire Estate’s obnoxiously long driveway. Her dad parked under a columned awning where, Lexi assumed, a valet was supposed to jump up and whisk vehicles out of sight.
“It’s not the White House,” he grunted, but even he was leaning over and giving the house a dubious frown. The Georgian home was one of the many buildings in Silent Pines that were protected as heritage sites by the Historical Society. In every history class that Lexi had ever shared with Margrit, the girl never failed to talk about her dumb mansion and boast about her connection with the founding families of the town. The Polks were a founding family too, but Lexi never heard anyone bringing that up.
Probably because the Berkshires owned practically everything in Silent Pines.
Lexi slid lower in her seat. “Why couldn’t Knucker be here? He’s the one that drove her car.”
Jacob let out a restrained hiss of air and gave his only child a look.
“He’s got dinner with his Nana. Believe me, the two of you will be doing anything that girl asks until that damn party of hers is over and done with. Because if that dragon she calls her mother calls me up one more time threatening a lawsuit, I’m going to let George haul your ass to jail and leave you there until you’re eighteen. Got it?”
Her mouth pursed like she’d bitten into a lemon. Lexi almost blurted out that going to jail would be better—and safer—than this, but she had a feeling that this time it wasn’t an idle threat. She nodded instead.
A sharp rap on the window made her jolt in her seat. Margrit peered in through the dirty glass, giving them one of her dumb fake smiles. Lexi shoved open the door so fast she nearly hit the girl with it, a little disappointed when Margrit hopped out of the way.
“Evening Mr. Ryan. You’re right on time. I hope it wasn’t too much trouble driving Lexi all the way across town. I’m afraid my car is still at the shop getting detailed.” When Lexi’s dad wasn’t looking, Margrit squinted sideways at Lexi with a sneer.
“Not a problem. Let Mrs. Berkshire know I appreciate how obliging she’s been.” Oh, nope. He’d seen that. That subtle bite in his tone was typically reserved for those really obnoxious customers at the shop—and was making Lexi really curious as to what exactly Mrs. Berkshire had said on the phone.
He didn’t stick around long enough for her to find out. After reminding Lexi when he’d be there to pick her up, he gave the girls a curt goodbye. Margrit waved him off until the truck was out of sight.
It was like a switch flipped the moment she knew Lexi’s dad was gone. With her arms splayed straight down at her sides, almost like one of those creepy mannequins in a horror film, Margrit slowly turned on the balls of her feet towards her prey. Her glossy, painted smile was so perfect that a sudden zing of terror struck Lexi. She almost bolted to chase her dad down the street, but her feet were glued in place.
“I’m almost sad the troll couldn’t make it too. We’re going to have so much fun tonight.” Margrit beckoned Lexi toward the house. “Follow me, servant.”
Mute and more than a little wary, Lexi followed Margrit inside.
It was like stepping onto another planet. The first thing she saw was a giant staircase that looked even wider than Lexi’s house. As a matter of fact, Lexi’s whole house and then some could have fit snugly in that front room. She found herself spinning in a circle trying to take it all in.
“Ahem,” Margrit cleared her throat. The other girl seemed to enjoy Lexi’s staring; Lexi quickly wiped the bewildered look off her face and scowled.
“What did you want me to do here?” she asked, though her real question was more along the lines of How are you going to kill me today?
“This way.” Margrit led her into another room—though the only way Lexi could tell was by the change from white marble floor to parquet wood tile—that might’ve seemed like a normal living room, had it not been absolutely huge. There were not just one, but three sectional sets. Who needed that many couches?!
“I should thank you, really. Because I so valiantly lent my car to help save a poor soul’s life, Mother is letting me take the lead in organizing one of her very important charity events. Soon this parlor will be transformed into a beautiful ballroom. We’re even getting the antique chandelier out of storage.”
Lexi didn’t register half of what she was saying, finding herself way more transfixed by a freaking bear. An actual real-life bear, standing up on its hind legs and flashing its pearly white teeth. When she reached out to touch it, she found the fur coarse and a little stiff. Something like this definitely could’ve taken a whole chunk out of her shoulder and then some. The shape was different, though. This thing wouldn’t have been able to chase her through the woods so deftly with its big round body.
“Oh my god, could you stop bonding with your boyfriend for two minutes? This is actually important!” Margrit shouted. When Lexi spun back around, she found Margrit holding a bucket of cleaning supplies and an apron. “As I was saying, it all needs to be dusted and cleaned before the movers can pack and set everything up.”
“What’s the apron for?” Lexi wanted to know.
“The apron is for fun.”
Fun for who? wondered Lexi, just as the apron hit her in the face. The bucket of supplies was shoved unceremoniously into her hands.
“After that, you’re going to wash and fold all of the party linens. Most of them will be fine in the machine.” Margrit wrinkled her nose. “Although I am not sure you’ve ever actually used a washing machine before, judging by those clothes.”
“I’ve done laundry before,” muttered Lexi.
“Of course you have,” Margrit chimed sweetly. “Hop to it, then.”
As soon as Margrit was out of sight, Lexi tossed the apron across the room. To be fair, it could have been worse. Lexi had been torturing herself imagining all the different ways Margrit was going make her life a living hell. Dusting a ginormous room and doing some laundry was pretty low on the list. Even better, Margrit wasn’t going to be on her heels being snotty the whole time.
Lexi pulled a feather duster out of the supply bucket and got to work. She probably spent more time playing with the thing than she did actually dusting, though. As she made her way around the room, she was finding precious little actual grime but lots of interesting little trinkets. From shined bronze bowls to crystal vases, little fancy eggs with secret compartments, letter openers fashioned like ceremonial knives used for human sacrifice… There were even huge scowling paintings of the Berkshires. One in particular looked a lot like Margrit, right down to the curly red hair, and Lexi might’ve assumed it was her if not for a little note card in the corner that read Georgia.
Lexi was digging through a jar filled with smooth pebbles and old coins when she nearly had a heart attack.
A thick curtain on the wall moved, and a demon with the ugliest face Lexi had ever seen jumped out and grabbed her by the arm. She shrieked, jerking backwards right into a table. Lexi caught the large marbled blue vase before it went tumbling, but unfortunately she missed its smaller companion. The metal urn rolled off the table and crashed to the floor. Dust spilled everywhere.
“Oh no, not Great-Grandpa again,” lamented the demon.
It took Lexi a second to realize the scary face was actually a mask on a little girl. When she pulled it off, there was a mess of curly red hair and a tiny wide-eyed face grimacing at the pile of dust on the floor. She couldn’t be more than five or six, Lexi reckoned, but she currently had more pressing issues.
Oh shit. That was a person’s ashes? Who kept their dead ancestors in jars?!
“Crap! Fuck! Damn!” exclaimed Lexi, scrambling for her bucket of supplies and digging around for something she could use to scoop up Great-Grandpa. She found a tiny dustpan and a little broom at the bottom of the bucket.
The little girl was no help at all. She just stood there rocking on her heels.
“It’s okay, he always ends up on the floor. Scotty says as long as you make sure his teeth get back in there, no one will notice.”
Scotty must’ve been Scott Berkshire, Margrit’s older brother. Which meant this midget must’ve been her little sister. Lexi hadn’t known Margrit even had a sister.
“You can’t tell anybody,” Lexi told the girl, getting as much of Great-Grandpa into the urn as she could. She tried not to shudder and think too much about all the chunky solid bits that clanked against the urn’s sides when she dumped the ashes back into it. Gross. There was still a little bit of him on the carpet, but the broom couldn’t get it up. A dust-buster was the next thing out of the bucket. “Especially not Margrit!”
“Whacha gonna give me?”
“Whacha gonna give me to keep quiet! Margie gives me chocolate truffles and Scotty gives me dollars.”
Lexi had to think about this. First of all, Margie? Were she not in loads of trouble already, that would’ve been the highlight of her day. Second, Lexi didn’t exactly have much to give. It’s not like she carried candy around to bribe annoying little kids with, and the few bucks she had in her pocket were her lunch money for the next week.
“Look, I don’t ha—”
Lexi grabbed the kid and covered her mouth with her hand, waiting with bated breath for Margrit’s heeled footsteps to echo through the house. When nothing but silence followed, Lexi let out a sigh. Behind her palm, the monster giggled.
“Okay, okay. Here.” Releasing the kid, Lexi dug into her front pocket to pull out her money. She intended to only hand over a dollar, but the second she had cash in hand, the girl snatched the whole folded wad and took off running out of the room.
No wonder the Berkshires were rich. They were a bunch of blackmailing thieves.
Once the evidence of Great-Grandpa’s fall was erased, Lexi figured it was best to seclude herself in the laundry room. Thanks to Margrit’s complete lack of a tour, she had to stumble through a hundred doors before she found the one housing the laundry. Unlike the dank corner in her own basement where the washer and dryer made their home, the Berkshires practically had an entire laundromat. Lexi supposed when you had a house big enough to hold two thousand families, you needed a professional facility for washing their clothes, too.
After getting the first cycle in the wash, Lexi made herself comfortable on top of the machine with the book Mr. Anderson gave her. There wasn’t much else to do unless she wanted to go defile more of Margrit’s cremated ancestors.
She was a little dubious about it for the first few pages; classic books were more a Knucker thing. Though she liked to read, it was usually in the form of comic books, manga, sci-fi, and fantasy—basically anything with cool pictures or zombies. Call of the Wild was about a dog named Buck, who so far was having a pretty shit life, and somehow Lexi found herself relating to Buck and all the crap he had to deal with. Before she knew it, she was sucked in.
A while later, Lexi was right in the middle of a sled-dog fight to the death and grimacing. This book was kind of brutal. Make it about teenage girls and Lexi figured it’d be pretty realistic.
“You’re here to do chores, not get off with my appliances,” commented Margrit, causing Lexi to start and jump off the washer. Margrit snatched the book from her hands in the process, giving the cover and insert a surprised appraisal. “This is expensive, where did you get this? Your dad isn’t going to pleased finding out you’re a thief, too.”
That was hilarious, considering Margrit’s little sister had just stolen Lexi’s lunch money. Lexi huffed, lunging forward to snatch the book back.
“Mr. Anderson let me borrow it. Give it back!”
Margrit stepped backwards, holding it aloft and just behind her.
“Does he know your track record with expensive things? I’d be surprised if he gets this back in one piece.”
Lexi’s face turned a bit red, but she made another grab for the book. Shoving Margrit’s dumb head in the dryer seemed like a good idea right about then. “How many times do I have to say I’m sorry? It’s not like I WANTED to almost die in your stupid car!”
Margrit continued to back up and dodge, finally tossing the book behind Lexi, where it landed safely and unharmed on top of the dryer. She looked smug, pressing her hands against the doorway as she hovered.
“Maybe when you’re actually sorry for being such a horrible waste of everyone’s time and energy, I might grace you with my forgiveness. But that would require you to get your head out of Knucker Polk’s ass long enough to, I don’t know, do something other than brood and stare moodily into the abyss.”
For a split second, everything went a bright, bright red. Her strangled silence must’ve been the reply Margrit was after because Lexi could hear the girl laughing as she left down the hall.
Why did Margrit always have to be such a bitch about everything? Who gave her the right to act like she was the Queen of Silent Pines? Lexi hissed under her breath, pressing the heels of her palms to her temples where her pulse was beating so hard she could feel it throbbing against her skull. What did Lexi ever do to earn this much shit from one girl? She bet the girl wouldn’t be so snarky all the time if she punched Margrit right in her freckled nose. Or pulled her arms until they made that satisfying crunching pop noise when they got jerked out of the sockets. She sure wouldn’t be able to talk if Lexi sank her teeth into Margrit’s throat. Lexi could even taste the iron tang of her blood—
Alarm rushed through her, twisting her gut into knots when she realized she was tasting actual blood. Lexi wiped her hand across her mouth quickly, finding only the tiniest bit of red. The crazy part was when something sharp nicked her palm. She pressed her tongue gingerly against her teeth and sucked in a breath at finding them impossibly sharp.
Her back hit the wall behind her and Lexi slid all the way down to the floor. She was just so fucking mad. Mad enough to see red, mad enough to think about murdering her own classmate. She could feel it coursing through the veins under her skin, making her muscles twitch and her breath stagger.
Squeezing her eyes shut and throwing her arms up over her head, she pleaded with herself to calm down. Lexi took in deep stilling breaths as she counted the seconds until that manic feeling passed. Until the sharpness faded and her heart simmered down to a steady rhythm.
Something was wrong with her. At that moment she knew it had to be something truly terrible. This couldn’t be rabies.
This was something worse.
That night, Lexi’s dreams were a mess of dogs. Lexi was Buck, hijacked out of her own home and now trying to survive in the wild.
Soft earth and brittle pine needles beat underneath her paws. The wind blew through her fur as she leaped over fences and darted between rows of old trees, charging farther and farther into the dark foggy forest. Everything around her felt so vibrant and alive. Her ears twitched and swiveled at the faint snores of animals sleeping in their burrows. Night creatures skittered under shrubs or along the tall branches of the trees. An owl hooted a complaint when she bounced off the trunk of its tree to pounce a fat juicy possum. It fell over playing dead and Lexi nudged it with her nose. It wasn’t any fun if it wouldn’t let her chase it.
She circled around a tree only to catch something fuzzy flashing at the corner of her eye. Lexi chased it, finding herself spinning in dizzy circles before she realized she was after her own tail.
Then she paused stock still. A scratching and scrabbling had captured her attention. Ears swiveling again, she took a few creeping steps through the underbrush to follow the sound. Even with nothing but pale moonlight, Lexi could still see the critter’s striped face and the wiggly paws fussing with what looked like a discarded candy bar. Wild raccoons were surprisingly huge!
This one wasn’t going to get away.
Fast as lighting, Lexi charged. She could feel the force of the movement in her very bones. Quick, powerful electricity. She was on top of the raccoon before it even knew what hit it. With a chomp of her teeth she had its head locked in her jaws, flooding her mouth with the warm, coppery taste of blood. After a violent shake of her head, she dropped the dead raccoon and licked her teeth. Fresh raccoon tasted a hell of a lot better than her dad’s poor excuse for a pot roast.
A sudden howl in the distance made Lexi freeze, the fur on her back sticking straight up. She could smell it in the wind… something strange. Something wrong. The howls were a warning; Lexi wasn’t supposed to be there. There was something dangerous out there. And it was close.
It broke the tree line within moments, a great lumbering shadow, huge and bristling with pitch black fur. He was a more monstrous avatar of Spitz, just like in her book. Only a beast instead of a dog. Too large for a wolf, too small for a bear. The moment it locked eyes with her, its ears went flat against its skull. It smelled like pine and wet dog and a musk that registered in her mind as male. And then, lurking beneath that, that scent of wrongness that sent her gums peeling back from her teeth.
Its tail was sticking out straight behind it like a ramrod, and as it scented the air in her direction, it gave one sharp wag. It had scented her kill, was already padding slowly forward as if this were its territory and not hers.
Lexi’s ears went back and her stance shifted, her head lowering as she snarled a warning. That’s mine. Shooting up her spine was a mix of fear and thrill. This strange thing was a familiar nightmare, one that only a week ago would have sent her screaming and running through the woods like… like dinner. Ready to chew her up all over again. But Lexi wasn’t a scared girl anymore.
The monster was big. But Lexi was bigger.
Lexi bounced forward, all snapping jowls and growls and pure blood-burning adrenaline. He launched to meet her, weaving to bring his fore-paws down on top of her body and try to bear her to the ground with his full and considerable weight. She could feel his teeth catching in the fur at the ruff of her neck and the side of her muzzle, hot spittle flying as he snarled and thrashed. Caught off-guard, Lexi came crashing down into the messy scarlet smears left by her own kill on the forest floor.
The monster’s paw slipped in a slick patch, and the pair went rolling. Everything went fuzzy for a split second in the way that dreams were apt to do. All her senses were upside-down and sideways. She was rolling upside-down and sideways in a wriggling fury of slamming paws and ripping fur. Lexi had gotten a mouthful of the stuff and she wasn’t sure if it had been from the tail end or the neck.
Why was she always ending up like this? Even in dreams she was forever getting shoved around. Lexi was done with being a chew toy.
Somewhere in the shuffle she bucked him off, though it was such a blur that she didn’t know quite how she’d managed it. Not that it mattered, because she was so absolutely furious all she could see was angry red. Her fur fluffed out on end, Lexi knew, because she could feel it raising all along her back and around her neck.
Baring her teeth again, this time there was no growling warning before she charged. There was a high shrieking yelp from the black beast in answer, and Lexi felt something sharp catch at her chest and drag downward.
“STOP!” a deep voice bellowed.
The sound echoed through the trees and reverberated in Lexi’s very bones. Her paws dug in and ears went flat instantly, and suddenly she was aware of a wet burning in her chest. Something in her spine rippled and then twisted with a crack so loud that a guttural scream tore its way out of her throat.
She went hot, white hot all over. She felt like a piece of wax that was held too close to a flame, her skin slipping and sliding with a series of pops like stray gunshots. Before she knew it, Lexi was boneless on the forest floor in a crumpled heap.
Naked. Vulnerable. Human. And painfully awake.
The searing sensation was fading, but she could still feel something stinging on her chest. Her palms braced against the bloody earth, her wild hair hanging in a curtain around her face, she watched a drop of crimson splash inside the larger puddle beneath her. Her mouth was foul with a murky, metallic tang.
She slowly became aware of a scrabbling beside her, another body sitting up.
“Oh god,” a boy’s voice croaked. “Shit—”
“No. No, no, no,” she croaked. Her throat and voice were as raw as the rest of her body. It felt like her skin was no longer attached to muscle, just sliding around where it pleased.
This was a dream. Go back to being a dream.
But it wasn’t. Everything was as sharp as a pinprick, thousands of needles stabbing their way down from her head to her toes. Lexi stared at her shaking, bloody hands before wiping the back of one against her mouth, only to succeed in smearing blood and fur across her face. She brought her other hand to her chest where a curtain of red covered so much of her skin she couldn’t tell if there was a line of gashes or if a hole had been ripped into her rib cage.
What did she do? Since when did rabies turn people into dogs?!
“What the ff—” She choked on another sobbing scream.
“Alexa!” the same deep voice came again, this time more of a rumble than a boom of thunder. Closer now. Someone was wrapping something around her shoulders, rough denim that smelled like pine and her dad’s aftershave. It was a man’s jacket, oversized even on her. Large hands gripped her forearms tight.
“Dylan, how bad is it?”
“Not that bad,” the other voice answered, wavering. “It’s just a graze, I was only trying to stop her. It’s just the shift—”
“I know,” the deeper voice snapped. Then, lower and more gently, “Alexa. Listen to me. You’re okay.”
“No!” she shouted again. The fight or flight instinct was in full gear, but Lexi couldn’t seem to will her body to move. She felt like burned macaroni, all scorched and mushy. Swinging a fist was what she wanted to do, yet all she could accomplish was balling up her hands and bending forward, hoping to God that wasn’t her guts spilled all over the forest floor.
Something about his voice registered as familiar in the back of her mind. Holy shit. Was it creepy woods dude? She was out in the woods naked, chomping on animals and getting into fights with demons and here was this dude again?!
“Get away from me!” Lexi hissed through her teeth. She tried to scramble out of his grip, ignoring her noodle arms in an effort to slap herself free.
“I will when you’re calm,” he said firmly. “Look at me.”
Lexi lifted her head.
He was kneeling on the ground in front of her, the knee of his jeans getting slowly stained in the pooling blood and guts of the dead raccoon. His eyebrows were drawn together, lips pressed thin, and his tawny skin was slick with sweat around the collar of his t-shirt. He seemed to grow inexplicably bigger the longer Lexi looked at him. He wasn’t even on his feet, but she felt as though he was looming, filling up all the blank spaces in the forest. Had he been like this the other day? It was the most intense feeling. Just meeting his eye made it a little hard to breathe.
“Listen.” His voice was so gravelly and rough and fathomless that she would have thought he was much older than she was, had he not looked so young. Something in that tone made her really want to listen to him. “My name’s Caleb.”
He looked sort of familiar, and Lexi remembered what he’d said the other day: His sister had told him about her. Given his coloring, it wouldn’t be a shocker if this was that Silvia Whelan chick’s older brother. Even if she’d never met two people so unalike in size and personality. This must have been Whelan property.
The jacket draped over her must have been his, too. It occurred to her that it smelled like him, which was weird as fuck. It was also bulky enough that she could easily pull it around herself and mostly be covered. Getting a little more blood on it wouldn’t make a difference; it was already ruined.
“You’re using Sith Lord mind tricks on me!” Lexi squeezed her eyes closed, but that didn’t seem to shut out her present nightmare or that looming presence the guy had. It was so strong she almost forgot all about the other dude that was there.
Never in her life had she been so trapped in a contradictory wish of wanting Knucker to be around, but at the same time being glad he was nowhere in sight. The taste of salty iron was still in her mouth. Even being naked wasn’t as traumatizing as the thought that she could’ve been chewing on him instead of a fat raccoon and—
“Just… fuck,” she cursed, finally just shoving her arms into the jacket and pulling it tight around her. Her bloody fingers fumbled through the line of buttons until she had some sense of covered modesty. What she should’ve been doing was punching this guy in the neck and taking off into the woods. But somehow she got the feeling he wasn’t like those assholes in town. It was more than just his words; Lexi guessed if his sister was nice, surely he had to be too.
Didn’t mean she wouldn’t bolt the second it sounded like a good idea.
“What the hell is going on?!”
“I should probably—” began the other kid. He was peering over Caleb’s shoulder, a bit red-faced, his dark hair sticking up in all directions. He didn’t appear to be wearing a shirt.
“Go home, Dylan,” Caleb interrupted. His mouth twisted downward.
“Yessir.” Dylan jumped to his feet. Lexi got an eyeful of the dude’s naked ass as he jogged off into the trees.
A man of his word, Caleb released Lexi’s arms, though he kept his hands hovering close nearby. Like he thought she might fall over again.
“Can you stand?” he asked quietly. “I live nearby. You can get cleaned up and then I’ll take you home, or you can call your dad—”
Oh god, no. There was no way in hell her dad was going to believe her. He didn’t believe something had tried to eat her in the woods, so why the fuck would he believe that she was sleep-eating wild animals and fighting dogs in the woods? He’d think she just snuck off with Knucker again to raid another party and get drunk, then tripped and smashed her face or something. That would at least be something believable.
It occurred to her then that there were no other dogs in sight. Instead of a monster, it was just the other boy dashing off and disappearing. She wasn’t the only one with weird rabies. What the fuck.
Lexi scrambled to her feet, surprised that she didn’t teeter as much as she was expecting. Everything had hurt twice as much as when she’d been bitten the night of the bonfire. To be fair, she had been pretty numb from the booze. But she was also pretty sure the black beast from her dream-that-wasn’t-a-dream had slashed her up pretty good. She should’ve been bleeding out by now.
Caleb rose when she did. His broad shoulders were coiled tight, muscles tensing, bloody hands still at the ready to catch her. Lexi couldn’t help staring. If he wanted to, he could probably pick her up and throw her like a rag doll. His jeans were patchy with dark stains, and he was stepping in something Lexi would rather not think about. Between the two of them, they looked like they’d just committed a murder.
She guessed he couldn’t be much more than twenty, but he was huge. And tall. Not the tallest guy she’d ever met, but damn close to it. Lexi bet he’d probably played football in high school.
“I can’t tell my dad about this,” she went on with a little less panic. “Whatever the hell this is, alright. I just—I want to know what it is and however many rabies shots I need to get.”
“It’s not rabies,” he told her, Adam’s apple working in his throat. “Alexa…”
Lexi visibly cringed.
“Lexi. It’s just Lexi,” she muttered. No one ever called her Alexa, except for her dad, usually when he was yelling at her. Or Margrit, who enjoyed being a real pain in the ass.
That swallow of his wasn’t comforting. Aside from the volume of his voice, nothing in his stony face seemed to change. It was like he was a statue, from head to toe, and it freaked it her out a little. But that swallow, that definitely meant something bad.
She balled up her fists and stood straighter.
“What is it? Just tell me. It’s some incurable disease and I’m going to die and then turn into a zombie, right? Except more like the dog version, so— …Aw fuck.”
It was only then that Lexi realized that despite being in the thick of the woods, so dark that the sun couldn’t possibly be in the sky above them, she could see clear as day. Every twig, every scattered pine needle underfoot, every leaf in the branches above their heads. The wind picked up, tugging at Lexi’s borrowed jacket, and her nose was suddenly going nuts too. She could smell pine and damp earth and chickens, and something else closer and musky and strange that made the hair on the back of her neck stand on end. In the distance, she could hear a rooster crow.
There went that ice cold panic again. Lexi tensed up ready to bolt. This wasn’t real. None of this could be for real.
Now he was frowning.
“Lexi,” he corrected. “You’re not going to die. But no, there isn’t a cure. Just… You’re not alone in this, either. You’re not crazy.”
Telling her she wasn’t crazy didn’t mean anything. It was a lie. One big huge never-ending clusterfuck where it all just kept getting worse and worse. You told people they weren’t crazy before you took them to an asylum, or a weird government hospital where they dissected you and pulled out all your guts to see how you worked. There were thousands of books and TV shows about it!
He took another slow step toward her, hands still raised like he was approaching some kind of wild animal.
“No,” she said again. Then, before he could grab her, she darted for the trees.
If he called out to her, Lexi didn’t hear it. She just ran like the devil was on her heels, faster than she had ever run, enough that her vision blurred and everything that passed her looked blended together. She told herself it was just because she lost so much blood and that it couldn’t possibly be the nightmare that was taking over her body. Nothing was wrong with her and it was all going to go away.
She hadn’t known where she was running to until the generic brick home of the Polks came into view. Some common sense must’ve still existed in her brain somewhere, because she paused at the front door before she made the mistake of knocking. If the Sheriff saw her like this…!
Quickly she darted around the side of the house until she found Knucker’s bedroom window. Sneaking into each other’s rooms was nothing new—they’d done it enough times as little kids. Lexi jiggled the ancient frame until the lock slipped loose, then pushed the window open. In seconds she had climbed inside and made a beeline for the disheveled bed. All the blood and gore was forgotten as she crawled onto the mattress and shook at Knucker’s sleeping form.
“Knucker! Knucker wake up! This is bad, it’s really bad!”
When he heard the soft rattle of his window opening, Knucker thought it was a dream.
Lexi shaking his shoulder and whispering his name was something he’d dreamed about before, but it was also something that had happened in actual waking life, and so he cracked his eyes open to blink blearily in her direction. The dim light of early dawn was just beginning to crawl into his bedroom, but it was still dark enough that he couldn’t make out much more than Lexi’s silhouette leaning over him.
Then he noticed the smell.
“Lexi?” he stammered, nose wrinkling, “What—”
He struggled up onto his elbows. Their noses were practically touching, just by sheer accident, but something on her breath or on her clothes smelled like sweaty batteries—and that wasn’t particularly Knucker’s dream. This must have been the real deal, and suddenly his heart squeezed painfully tight in his chest.
“Lex,” he said again, reaching up to tuck her windblown hair behind her ear. Fuck. She was shaking. “What happened?”
Damn, she was so glad to see him. Knucker was real and solid and dependable. But when she looked down to see blood-spattered denim and her bare knees, her last hope that everything had just been part of a lucid dream shattered. The dirt, grime, and gore were still there. The whole world was different now and not in the way she wanted it to be.
“I killed something,” she whispered first. Lexi drew her hands up to her mouth, wincing with the motion and looking for a second like she was going to throw up. Her whisper rose to a croaking shout. “I ate it!”
“I’m a wolf, Knucker! A freaking wolf!”
“Shhh!” he hissed frantically, his palm plastering over her mouth. Was she crazy?! For a long and horrifying moment, his biggest worry was that his dad would hear Lexi and wake up and catch them in here like this and think God knew what.
Then her actual words sank in.
“…Y-yeah,” he tripped over his answer, feeling a wash of cold as the blood drained from his face. “Yeah, I kind of figured.”