The Monster Part 1

PART I

Beneath you, around you, through you,

just beyond the edge of

all that you know and all that you are,

lies the unknown.

Behold the NeverNeath.

~*~

In the Dark of the Night

Up until about five minutes ago, Mrs. Pollyanna Keller had always felt safe in the small town of Geneva, New York. Her birthplace sat far enough away from the cities to be considered almost rural. By urban standards, anyway. Tonight, however, the safety net in which she’d always felt herself enveloped was evaporating. And fast.

She was being followed. She was certain of it. It was a feeling. One that started in her gut and spread like hot needles across her skin.

Of course, her sense of foreboding could also be explained by the fact that a hoodie-clad boy, no older than eighteen or nineteen by the build of him, had been on her heels since she left the restaurant.

A bolt of lightning shot down from the heavens and startled her, the flash blinding for a moment. A burst of thunder followed and sent a wave of electricity crackling over her nerves.

Why hadn’t she taken Amelia up on her offer? She’d be in a nice warm car instead of running for her life. Metaphorically.

Her friend and fellow retired teacher had offered to drive her to where she’d parked, but Polly insisted the short, four-block walk would do her good. Damned margarita. Sure, she’d drunk it over two hours ago, wanting to make certain the tequila was completely out of her system before getting behind the wheel of her Buick Lacrosse, but it must’ve played a part in her making such an irrational decision. A decision she was regretting more with each second that passed.

She gripped her bag tighter and quickened her step, her heels clicking on the sidewalk that led to her car.

“Stupid,” she said to herself as she made the last turn and hurried across a dark parking lot.

When she’d arrived that evening for her dinner date with Amelia, the lot had been full. She’d been forced to park in one of the farthest spots the lot had to offer. Now, only one other car besides hers remained, and it was at the opposite end of the lot, covered in shadows, the light from the streetlamps not quite bright enough to illuminate the entire space.

She resisted the urge to glance over her shoulder a sixth time. To see if the boy was still following her. Hood low. Hands in pockets. Gait slow but steady.

And casual.

Too casual.

She didn’t want him to know how worried she was, so she resisted the instinct to look back with everything she had in her.

Normally, a kid on her heels would hardly register. She’d been a teacher, for heaven’s sake. A high-school teacher. Brigadier generals had nothing on her.

But thanks to a rash of attacks in the small town, two of which had left people in the hospital fighting for their lives, the fact that she’d chosen to walk instead of take Amelia up on her offer was making her feel dumber by the moment. She could sense her IQ plummeting as she rifled through her bag for her key.

Finding it just as she made it to her car, she pulled out the fob. In her haste, however, she dropped it on the dark pavement. She cursed a streak worthy of a crab fisherman—if the reality show were to be believed—then bent to pick it up. Just as her fingers wrapped around the plastic encasement, someone else’s fingers wrapped around hers.

She gasped and jerked away, fear tightening her chest, constricting her airways. A quick glance confirmed it was the boy. She stumbled back, but he caught her arm, quickly unlocked her car, and pushed her into the driver’s seat.

“I called the police,” she said in a breathy whisper. It was all she could manage.

“No, you didn’t,” he said, kneeling beside her.

She curled her fingers around the steering wheel as though the circular device would anchor her to Earth. Would keep the boy from abducting her or hitting her or . . . or worse.

Shaking uncontrollably, she suddenly understood what true vulnerability felt like. He could kill her. So easily it was almost laughable. And no one would be the wiser.

He reached across her lap and Polly froze, but he only dropped the fob into the cup holder on the console. Then he covered one of her hands with his, and she almost whimpered aloud. Hating herself for it. Despising the helplessness that made her dizzy with disbelief.

She let her lids drift shut, praying desperately for a coherent thought. She’d taken a self-defense class, but that was thirty years ago when she was younger and thought she actually had something to worry about. Who would want to attack her now? A fifty-five-year-old woman who’d been gaining steadily around the middle for decades?

Then the boy’s mouth was at her ear, his voice smooth and cool and matter-of-fact. “They’ve disabled your car.”

It took her a moment to comprehend what he’d said. For the word “they” to sink in.

She lifted her lids but kept her gaze locked on the hand blanketing hers. It was covered in scars. Thin and perfectly sewn, they zigzagged over his hand from knuckles to wrist as though he’d been ripped apart and stitched back together at some point in his life.  A fact that did nothing to ease the paralyzing fear that squeezed her throat.

She swallowed hard and asked in a quivering voice, “They?”

“It won’t start. Lock the doors and call the police. For real, this time, yeah? And don’t get out of your car no matter what you see.” He started to rise, but knelt again and added, “Or hear.”

She sat drowning in a tumultuous sea of confusion. They? Who were they? Why would they disable her car?

When she didn’t move, he reached back and pushed the button to lock the doors. Disoriented, she finally turned to face him, but it was too dark to make out his features beneath the hood.

After a moment, she realized he wasn’t looking at her. He was looking past her, his head slightly tilted.

She followed his gaze and saw five men in a variety of shapes and sizes walking slowly toward her car. And she’d thought she couldn’t have been more frightened than she had been ten seconds ago. She was wrong.

The world fell out from under her. She’d read the news reports. A gang had been terrorizing the city. They wore masks over their faces. Black with white skulls. Just like the five who were making their way toward her now.

They walked with a certainty that there was nothing she could do to prevent what was about to happen to her. An arrogance meant to torment. A conceit meant to terrify.

She struggled to remember the name of the gang—something about ghosts or spirits—until she realized each member carried a rudimentary weapon. A bat here. A crowbar there.

Pollyanna felt the edges of her periphery darken.

“Mrs. Keller,” the boy next to her said, pulling her attention back to him.

Tearing her gaze away from what could very well be the instruments that ended her life, she looked at him. Now desperately curious why he was there if not part of the gang which had clearly been lying in wait.

She squinted into the darkness, trying to make out the boy’s features to no avail. Not until another bolt of lightning cracked the sky, illuminating her surroundings. Illuminating his face.

And she saw blue. As thunder rumbled through the heavens, she saw a blue so bright it was startling. His eyes glistened like a mosaic of sapphire stained glass before the light faded, bathing him in darkness again. A place she had a feeling he liked to be.

He brushed the back of a finger across her jaw, the act so gentle, she wanted to cry. “First, call the police, Mrs. Keller.”

The fact that he knew her name would puzzle her later, but for now she simply tried to nod. She failed. Fear had such a stronghold she could barely move.

The boy leaned closer, as though in understanding, and whispered, “Then close your eyes.”

He stood and pushed the door shut behind him.

Coming to her senses at last, adrenaline shot through her.

“Call the police,” she whispered. “Right. Good idea.”

She opened her bag, dug out her phone, and dialed 9-1-1 with trembling fingers. The line barely started to ring when a sound like a cannon blast rocketed through her car. The vehicle dipped then bounced back up. Polly screamed into the phone just as dispatch came onto the line.

“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?”

But she couldn’t tear her eyes off the man lying across her hood. He moaned and rolled onto his side, clutching his ribs. Then, in an instant, he was ripped away to disappear into the darkness.

“9-1-1, is this an emergency?”

She didn’t get a good look at him, but she thought she saw a mask across the guy’s face, so it was one of them. Not the boy. Thank God.

“This is 9-1-1—”

“Yes,” she said, her voice barely audible, her hands shaking so hard she almost dropped the phone numerous times. “Yes, I’m at the parking lot on Hamilton. There’s a . . . there’s a gang—”

Before she could finish the sentence, another body slammed into the side of her car, pushing the vehicle two feet in the opposite direction. She screamed again in reflex before searching the darkness for whatever—whomever—hit her car hard enough to slide it sideways.

Dispatch was touting something about help on the way, but Polly sat transfixed as the boy took on all five gang members.

All five men.

Alone.

They would tear through that poor kid in no time and she’d be stranded with nowhere to go while they shattered her windows and dragged her outside.

She squeaked out a warning as the boy ducked a thrown fist with ease. Then he used his opponent’s momentum against him. He shouldered the gangly man, grabbed his clothes, and picked him up—literally lifted him over his head as though the man weighed nothing—only to slam him onto the roof of her car.

The force sent cracks splintering across her windshield like spider webs, not that it mattered. It would seem her Buick was the boy’s only weapon, and it was being crushed one gang member at a time.

One of the men—apparently the only smart one—took off as the last masked assailant threw his best swing. Unfortunately, it was with a crowbar. It hit the boy square in the ribs and Polly’s hands shot up to cover her mouth. Her phone landed on the floorboard but she didn’t dare look away.

The boy seemed unfazed as he pulled the struggling gang member, a man twice his size, into a headlock. The guy thrashed violently. It didn’t matter. Mere seconds later, the guy’s entire body went limp, as though his bones had dissolved, and he crumpled at the boy’s feet.

Polly blinked in shock. It was over almost as soon as it began. One kid stood off against five armed men, ruthless gang members, and came out the victor.

The boy paused, scanning the street, and her cognitive mind nudged past her stupor to register the sound of sirens in the distance.

Then the boy lowered his head and looked into the car as though checking up on her.

She nodded and the boy touched the seam of his hood, just over his brow, as though tipping an invisible hat. Without another thought, he tore off in the same direction the last gang member had gone, whether to run him down or to avoid the authorities, Polly didn’t know.

Seconds later a shower of red and blue lights flooded the area and Mrs. Pollyanna Keller filled her lungs for the first time since she’d left the restaurant, wondering how she was going to explain the state of her car to her husband.

~*~

By the Light of the Moon

Francesca—or Frankie to her friends . . . and family . . . and, well, pretty much everyone—pushed the pedal farther to the floor, anxious to get home. But her red Toyota Camry, aka The Flash, was old. Really old. So old Frankie had considered changing her name to The Hot Flash, but she didn’t think her Aunt Bobby, who was fast approaching the change, would appreciate the reference.

None of that mattered, though. The Flash was Frankie’s and she loved her. As her Uncle Bobby said on more than one occasion, the Flash wasn’t old, she was experienced.

“You’re experienced, all right,” Frankie said aloud. “But you’re wise, too, aren’t you, girl?” She reached forward and patted her dash.

Her paint may have been a little weathered, her parts a little rusty, her body a little scarred, but Frankie liked weathered and rusty and scarred.

Especially scarred.

Scars told stories. Scars brought out the best in people. Scars proved that the bearer was still alive. Even when she shouldn’t be. Even when she doesn’t deserve to be. And yet, here she was. Still breathing. Still present.

Thanks to him.

A brilliant streak of lighting snapped her back to attention. Thunder grumbled in the distance. She tugged on The Flash’s reins, so to speak, easing up on the gas as she neared a stop sign.

Fresh droplets of rain landed softly on her windshield and she cracked her window, but even the smell of ozone couldn’t block out thoughts of her boyfriend, Gage, and his odd behavior earlier. His odd behavior of the last few weeks, to be exact, but tonight they’d been arguing about homework, of all things, and his inability to turn in a paper that hadn’t been copied from someone else.

It was one thing to be the star football player in high school, where charm can get you just as far as intellect. But once he landed that scholarship he’d been aiming for, he’d have to join the real world and make the grades as well as the touchdowns. And she wouldn’t be there to help him.

That was all she meant when she suggested he actually study. They’d been in his bedroom, mostly because he was more interested in making out than doing homework. But she’d gotten her hopes up when he asked her about their latest history assignment.

And then he uttered those fateful words, “Can I take a look at your answers?”

She eased away from him and chose her words carefully. “Gage, how about you do the assignment and then I’ll check your answers? You need to learn this material before the test if you want to pass it.”

And that was all it took. Gage went from flirtatious to furious in seconds, gaping at her as though she’d slapped him before flying into a fit of rage.

He shoved his books off the bed and flung himself off it.

Frankie knew better than to provoke him, so she simply gathered her own books and started to walk out.

But he grabbed her arm. Forced her to face him. Pulled her closer until they were nose-to-nose.

At over six feet, Gage made a formidable opponent, his handsome face twisted in anger, his brown eyes glistening with it. If his mother hadn’t walked in, Frankie didn’t know what he would have done, and that was not a feeling she ever wanted to experience again.

Unfortunately, that kind of odd behavior had been par for the course lately, and she was beginning to wonder if Gage was on something. Would he be stupid enough to risk a scholarship to get wasted with his friends? Or maybe it was something along the line of steroids. Did athletes still do steroids? Was that a thing?

Still, it didn’t matter if he was on drugs or not. She would not be put through that again. Not by anyone. Gage didn’t know it, but he was about to become her ex-boyfriend.

She put on her blinker to turn left and drifted to a stop at the sign. The streets were wet and dark and nearly empty, so when she pressed the gas pedal, easing into the intersection, the flash of black that flew past the front of her car stole her breath.

She slammed on the brakes, barely missing a man by inches before he disappeared into the darkness again. But she saw something in that split second that sent a chill up her spine. She saw a black and white skull mask. The same type of mask worn by the Wraiths, a gang of criminals who had attacked one of her classmates and put elderly man in the hospital, among other heinous acts.

She pressed a hand to her heart and realized this was not a place she wanted to meet a member of the Wraiths: alone and in the dark. But before she could press the gas pedal again, her passenger door opened and the man scrambled into her car like he owned it.

Shock paralyzed her for a split second before her senses came rushing back. She reached for her door handle, but the man put a knife to her throat before she could escape.

She sucked in a sharp breath and eased back against her seat. The man nodded his approval, then reached over and locked her doors, something she should have done when she got into her car at Gage’s house.

“Go,” he said, his gaze darting about nervously.

All Frankie could do was recall the statistics of survival rates for people who were carjacked, her photographic memory flashing chart after chart in her mind.

But when he took a handful of her hair, jerked her head back, and said, “Get me the fuck out of here, bitch,” she snapped to her senses and floored it. Only this time, she really did hit something.

She slammed on her brakes again, her mind barely registering another pedestrian racing through the beams of her headlights. This one, also in a black pullover with the hood up, hadn’t been so lucky. She hit him, the thud nauseating as he fell onto her hood then rolled off, landing on the ground in front.

Forgetting about the knife at her throat, she pressed both hands to her mouth and scanned the area through the swoosh of her windshield wipers and the haze of her headlamps. The air thick with tension, both she and the man beside her looked for whomever she’d just run down.

Her lungs stopped working. The only sound she could hear was her own blood rushing in her ears, keeping time with the panicked rhythm of her pulse. Until a sharp crash splintered the air.

The passenger’s window shattered. Glass exploded and showered both her and her would-be abductor. Before she could comprehend what had happened, the man holding her hostage was ripped out through the window, his screams somehow more desperate than hers. More terrified. More sickening.

Her screams echoed in her ears, but didn’t register. They were reflexive. Pure, unadulterated terror.

An hour from now, Frankie would realize she should have hightailed it out of there that instant. She should have floored it and not looked back until she could run into her aunt and uncle’s arms, crumble into a whimpering pile of hysterics, and call the police from the safety of her own home.

But not Francesca Michelle Victor.

Hell, no.

She had to watch wide-eyed as the guy in the hoodie—a boy by the looks of him—pinned the man down in one of those MMA holds, his knee at the guy’s throat. The Wraith did everything he could to get out from under the boy to no avail. His hands, slick with wetness from the rain, slipped off the boy. He couldn’t get a good hold.

What seemed like hours later, the Wraith’s movements became imprecise and unhurried, as though he were swimming in slow motion, until he finally quit thrashing altogether. He’d lost consciousness and grown hauntingly still, and Frankie wondered if the boy had killed him.

She sat so focused on the Wraith, watching his chest to see if he was still breathing, she didn’t notice the boy had rolled off him. Not until her window was shattered as well, and she found herself being dragged out by her hair.

Thankfully, the boy had unlocked her door and opened it to drag her out, saving her the agony of shards of broken glass shredding her skin.

e thrust her against the car and pressed a forearm to her throat. Icy rain pelted her face as she struggled against him.

“Where are the others?” he asked through clenched teeth, but Frankie could think of only one word: oxygen.

She fought him, kicking and clawing and scratching until she managed to dislodge the hood of his pullover. And she stilled. Not because of the scars on the boy’s face or the sheer perfection that lay beneath them, but because of his eyes. They were so blue they almost glowed, especially when a streak of lightning brightened the black sky.

She’d seen eyes like that before. Once. A very long time ago.

The boy smirked as though he knew his image would give her pause. He leaned in. To give her a better look? To scare her? Did he honestly believe scars would scare her?

“Where are the others?” he repeated, but he tore his gaze off hers and focused on something lower. His brows slid together and he took his arm off her throat instantly. He didn’t release her, but at least Frankie could breathe.

She wrapped a hand around her throat, gasping for oxygen and paying the price for taking such huge gulps of the glacial air with a series of hacking coughs. Her breaths came out in puffs of fog, more evidence of how cold it was.

“Did he do that?” the boy asked, suddenly concerned.

She glared up at him. She’d been manhandled quite enough for one day, thank you very much. She pushed at his shoulders then quickly stumbled to her knees when he backed off. Her throat burned, but not from the pressure of his arm. Tears threatened to come and she refused to give in to them. Not now. She would not give this jerk the satisfaction of seeing her cry.

Then she realized what he meant. She drew her hand back from her neck. Her fingers were covered in blood. Had the Wraith cut her? She could hardly remember anything, she’d been so scared. If the gang member did do it, she hadn’t felt it.

The boy bent to pick her up. Though it made absolutely no difference, she fought him. He lifted her to her feet easily, but she managed to keep a hand on his chest to hold him at bay as he rested her against her car.

“Do you know him?” he asked, his voice low and smooth as though he hadn’t just forced a man twice his size into unconsciousness.

The tears that had threatened before were now stinging the backs of her eyes, and it galled her. “Of course, I don’t know him,” she said, her voice hoarse.

When a tear betrayed her and slipped past her lashes, she was thankful for the rain. She tried to push the boy away nonetheless, embarrassed, but he didn’t move a centimeter. Despite the fact that he was more lean than bulk, it was like pushing a brick wall.

The boy frowned then tilted his head to look inside her car. He reached down and grabbed the knife the Wraith had been holding to her throat.

“Are you okay?” he asked, almost apologetically, and she realized for the first time he had an accent. One she couldn’t place.

She tried again to twist out of his grasp and again she failed. Now shivering almost uncontrollably, she admitted with a heavy sigh, “I don’t know. I think so. I don’t remember him cutting me. It may have been the glass.”

“It wasn’t the glass.”

He slid the side of the knife along his fingers, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. Her blood. The guy had cut her. How had she not felt that?

As he looked down at the knife, his face severe like he was pondering the deepest questions of the universe, she got a good look at his profile. A perfect testament to the power of beauty. He had a strong brow bone, a straight nose with a slight tilt at the tip, chiseled cheeks and jaw, and a full mouth with lips most girls would ache to take for a test drive.

Most girls.

Not Frankie.

Definitely not Frankie.

His features were youthful, almost childlike. So much so, that fact may have made him look younger than he actually was. But the scars spoke volumes. And the eyes. Large, almond-shaped with lashes so thick, even spiked with rainwater they kept his irises hidden in shadows unless he was looking directly at a girl.

Like he was now.

He stood facing her, exposing the most prominent scar on his face from underneath a tuft of dark, wet hair. It traveled from his forehead, sliced through a perfectly shaped brow, and plummeted over his left eye, coming to an end just under his cheekbone. And right beneath his eye was another scar slashed perpendicular to the other, forming a small cross.

So strange and perfect and beautiful.

It was fascinating. He was fascinating. And a complete ass, because if he knew she wasn’t a member of the Wraiths, why was he still holding her against her will?

She thought about struggling again, but as he stood studying her, a hint of recognition flashed across his face. The same thing had happened to her when she first saw him, but that was impossible. That was . . . that was far too long ago.

She heard a strangled sound coming from the other side of her car. He was waking up. The Wraith. He was coming to.

Her lids rounded and she curled her fingers into the boy’s hoodie. He stepped closer, as though instinctual. Her body craved the warmth of his, the safety of his arms, but she held her ground. Fought the urge to curl herself into him.

He dropped the knife back onto the seat then, with one hand braced on the car by her head, he put the other on her waist and closed the distance between them. When she eased even closer, her teeth chattering, her entire body trembling, he slid his hand around to her back and pulled her to him.

“Are you afraid of me?” he asked, his voice soft and deep, his tone warning.

The question startled her, but she quickly replied, “No.”

He bent until his mouth was at her ear. His warm breath fanned across her frozen cheek, as he said, “You should be.”

Frankie blinked as red and blue strobes obstructed her vision. She turned and saw a police car speeding toward them. When she turned back to the boy, he was gone. Vanished. She hadn’t felt him move much less heard him. She hurried around the car to search for him, but he’d disappeared.

The cruiser pulled to a stop a few feet away from her, and Frankie finally let herself sink into a state of hysteria. It felt like the right thing to do.

~*~

In the Light of the Day

“Frankie, your ride is here!”

Francesca ignored the feminine voice of her Aunt Bobby, a stark contrast to the masculine voice of her Uncle Bobby—long story—and frowned into the mirror in her bedroom, twisting her neck this way and that for better view.

“Frankie!”

“Sorry, Aunt Bobby!” she yelled downstairs, her throat still a little sore from the night before. “Be right there!”

A car horn tapped quickly, Robyn’s gentle reminder of her presence. And possible irritation. But, boy, did Frankie have a story for her. Robyn wouldn’t be irritated with her for weeks, possibly

months, because Frankie was going to milk this near-death experience for all it was worth.

Still, she’d lied. She’d lied to the police. She told them she didn’t see the other boy. The one who fought the Wraith. The one who dragged her out of her car by her hair. The one who most likely saved her life.

That had to be why she’d become so captivated with him. So drawn to him. He’d saved her life and she imagined feelings for him because of it. It was like a twisted version of Stockholm Syndrome. If she ever saw him again—which why would she?—she knew, knew, she wouldn’t be the slightest bit interested in him.

She had a sneaking suspicion the detective she spoke to knew she was lying. They were trained in these things, after all. A part of her didn’t care. If the guy had wanted to stick around and talk to the cops, he would have. Clearly, he didn’t. And she owed him. No matter what happened, he’d saved her from . . . from God knows what.

The Wraiths were making quite a name for themselves as being the most ruthless, bloodthirsty gang the state had seen in a long time, and that was saying something. They lived in New York, after all. There was simply no telling what could’ve happened to her.

Her aunt and uncle knew it, too. She’d heard them long after they finally arrived home at two o’clock that morning. Her aunt was hysterical while her uncle tried to console her.

By the time they’d arrived at the scene last night, Frankie had gone into something of a state of shock. As she watched the police arrest the Wraith, the world swam around her in slow motion. She was bitterly cold. And all she could think about was the boy. But just the arrival of her beloved guardians made her feel better.

As the detective spoke to her uncle Bobby, her Aunt Bobby rushed over to her and held her for what seemed like hours. Thankfully, Frankie didn’t need stitches and the EMTs let her aunt and uncle take her home without going to the hospital first, but she had to promise to go in to see the detective and give a formal statement the next day.

She glanced once more at her reflection. “Down it is,” she said, pulling her auburn hair forward over her shoulders to cover up the knife wound.

She’d had been debating putting her hair up and wearing a turtleneck, but then she remembered she didn’t actually own a turtleneck.

Then she saw the bruises on her arm. With everything that had happened, it would seem unfair to blame her soon-to-be ex, Gage, but he had grabbed her the night before and she remembered vividly where his grip had taken hold. She didn’t realize he’d grabbed her hard enough to leave marks, but that’s exactly what he did, and a soft, indignant fury rose inside her. It would not happen again.

She shrugged into a gray oversized knit jacket then let it slide down one shoulder for another look. Four purple spots on the front of her upper arm and one in back. It was one thing to be attacked by a stranger. Or two. It was another to be manhandled by a boy who was supposed to love her.

“Oh, hell no,” she said, yanking the jacket back into place.

She swung her backpack over her shoulder and hurried downstairs before Robyn could tap out another of her gentle reminders. Noise, any noise, upset Mr. Thermopolis next door. And that man could hold a grudge until the stars burned out. Or until he died. Whichever came first. He told her so. In those exact words.

Giving her aunt a quick kiss on the cheek, she stole the muffin out of her hand then leaned down to give her three-year-old cousin, Daniella, butterfly kisses and her one-year-old cousin, Chase, tiny Eskimo kisses. They always made him giggle, the blue-eyed darling.

“Sweetheart, are you sure?” her Aunt Bobby asked for the thousandth time. “You can miss one day of school.” She leaned in to whisper, “You could have been killed last night.”

“I know, Aunt Bobby,” she said, giving her aunt another quick hug while trying to tamp down the guilt of what she’d put them through. “I’m okay. Promise. Girl time will do me wonders.”

Bobby nodded reluctantly and Frankie breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing she wanted to do was lounge in her room all day, reliving the last twelve hours of her life over and over. Not to mention the fact that she needed to break up with Gage ASAP. No use in putting it off. They were going in two separate directions: disciplined and volatile.

“One more!” Daniella shouted, so Frankie leaned down for another butterfly kiss. The child’s lashes were criminally long. There should be a law.

With one more reassuring smile to her aunt, Frankie left the house she’d lived in since the accident with one question on her mind: just who exactly saved her life last night?

 

~*~

Within the Sanctity of Friendship

 

Frankie waved at Thing #1, opened the bright red door to her friend’s Volkswagen Beetle, and scooted inside, stuffing her backpack at her feet.

“How’s it hanging?” Robyn, a tiny brunette with sparkling aquamarine eyes, asked her.

“A little to the left,” she said, repeating their usual greeting. “But you won’t believe what happened to me last night.”

“Yeah? You get knocked up again?”

That was the latest running joke since Frankie had been a week late a few months ago but had yet to actually have sex. Her so-called friends were calling it a miracle, a marvel, an immaculate conception, until her monthly visitor came knocking on her door.

They were very disappointed.

“Let me just say,” Frankie just said, leaning closer, a conspiratorial gleam in her eye, “getting knocked up in my current condition, i.e., chaste, wouldn’t even compare to what I’m about to tell you.”

Robyn leaned back and narrowed her lashes at her. “No shit?”

“No shit.”

A single brow quirked in interest, but knowing Frankie would wait to explain until the third Musketeer had joined their group, Robyn nodded and took off toward Vivi, aka, Thing #3’s, abode.

For the record, Frankie was Thing #2. They went by birthdays. Robyn was one month older than Frankie and Vivi one month younger. As Frankie liked to say, she was the creamy stuffing in the middle of her two best friends.

“You cleaned,” she said, glancing around the car in shock. Cleanliness was not Robyn’s strong suit.

“I had to. My stepdad, motherfucker, sat me down for a heart-to-heart.”

Motherfucker was Robyn’s favorite word.

“Uh-oh.”

They pulled up to Vivi’s house. As usual, Thing #3 was sitting on her porch swing, all ready and waiting. Suck up. Even though all three girls had cars, some nicer than others, Robyn drove them to school every day since she lived the farthest out. Frankie was first on her route, then Vivi, or Vivilicious as they liked to call her. Vivi was the tallest of the three with long, black hair, huge brown eyes, and warm skin darker than any amount of sun could produce.

“You know you make me look bad,” Frankie said, as she climbed into the back seat to let Vivi have the front. This whole being-ready-on-time thing would have to stop.

Vivi smirked. “I make most people look bad. Don’t take it hard.”

Robyn snickered appreciatively and they fist bumped. At Frankie’s expense.

Vivi was actually the least conceited person Frankie had ever met, which was why her feigning arrogance was so humorous. Unless it was at Frankie’s expense.

Robyn pulled back onto the road and told Vivi, “Something happened to Frankie last night.”

“Did you get knocked up again?”

Frankie rolled her eyes and then proceeded to tell them a story that knocked their Bombas socks off, if their stunned facial expressions by the time they pulled into the school parking lot were any indication.

Score one for the Frankster.

~*~

Among a Day of Firsts

 

“Indigo. Maximilian. Wruck.”

The principal of Geneva High in upstate New York sat behind a huge, paper-filled desk and looked over Iggy’s records. Iggy’s falsified records. If anyone were to look too closely, this could be a very short venture for him. A venture he wouldn’t even be attempting if not for the concerned urgings of his housekeeper and caretaker, Mrs. Reinhart. Or, as far as anyone in Geneva knew, his Aunt Loralee.

“Yes, sir,” he said, growing nervous, though he had no idea why. If he were found out, they’d simply pack up and leave the state. Possibly the country.

Iggy had lived all over the world. He liked the US, though, and was considering making it his home for a while if this paper-pusher didn’t muck it up.

Mrs. Reinhart would be disappointed if they had to move again. More disappointed. She’d greeted him long before he needed to be ready that morning, and her greeting wasn’t a friendly one.

“Was it you?” she asked in English, her voice still brimming with her native accent no matter how many lessons they’d all had. “Did you stop those . . . those hooligans last night?”

She shook a finger at him and he couldn’t help the warm expression he gave her. Out of all of his caretakers, she had been one for the record books.

And she’d married into the position. It hadn’t been handed down to her like it had her male counterpart, her husband, Mr. Reinhart. But they both treated Iggy with the upmost respect and, if he dared to believe it, love. If not love, then at the very least a deep concern for his well being. It was more than he’d learned to hope for from his caretakers.

But unlike the caretakers before her, Mrs. Reinhart had taken things one step further. She’d been encouraging him to go out. To experience the world. To meet people and make friends. The exact opposite of the strict instructions that had been handed down from generation to generation.

And that was how Iggy found himself starting high school, or any school for that matter, for the very first time in his life. Thus the rankling of nerves. Oddly enough, it exhilarated him.

When he finally confessed his sins to Mrs. Reinhart, confirming his part in the previous night’s shenanigans, she scolded him with a firm tongue-lashing before insisting he eat a hearty breakfast before school.

He chuckled to himself and shook his head. Before school. The concept was as foreign to him as the plethora of American customs he found oddly fascinating, like pumpkin spiced lattes and iced tea.

“Is something funny, Mr. Wruck?” the principal asked.

“No,” he said matter-of-fact. When the principal questioned him with a brow, he amended with, “My aunt.”

“Oh, that’s right.” He flipped through some more papers. “You live with your aunt and uncle, a Mr. and Mrs. Reinhart.”

“Yes.” After some thought, he added, “Sir.” No need to make things worse than they already were.

The principal gave him another once over before returning to the paperwork on his desk.

Mrs. Reinhart had bought Iggy the clothes he was wearing, and he got the feeling the principal didn’t appreciate his attire. Perhaps he didn’t like Marilyn Manson’s version of Tainted Love, which was plastered on the T-shirt he wore in inky black tones and neon blues. He had on a brand-new pair of jeans that looked two years old, a new pair of sought-after running shoes that he hoped wouldn’t get him mugged, and a spiffy new zip-up hoodie. Black, of course. She wouldn’t stray too far away from his comfort zone, but she also wanted him to fit in. Like that would ever happen.

“Indigo,” the principal continued. “That’s an unusual name.”

“Yes, sir. My father gave it to me. But most people call me Iggy.”

“Oh, well, that’s much more common,” the man said, making a joke. “Thing is, Iggy,” he added, emphasizing the nickname, “my secretary noticed you went to a school in San Diego and, of all the darnedest things, she knew one of your teachers.”

Iggy fought the urge to shift in his chair. Here it comes.

“So, she decided to call her old friend to catch up and to see what she thought of you.”

Iggy nodded, unimpressed. It was fun while it lasted. All twelve minutes of it. Maybe they would go back to Ireland. Mrs. Reinhart loved Ireland. Or Iceland. Iggy had always wanted to live there. He even learned the language, just in case.

“But it seems like Mrs. Crawford doesn’t remember you. Which is strange since she just had you two years ago.” When Iggy didn’t answer, he asked, “Don’t you find that strange?”

“Yes, sir,” Iggy said, wondering how long to give this. He wasn’t fond of interrogations. He’d had far too many in his lifetime and most of them involved either batons or water and electricity. Sometimes all three.

It was his face. People were scared of him. Most of the time he liked that fact, but when being accused of wrongdoings he didn’t do, wrong or otherwise, the face thing tended to get in the way. People judged him first and asked questions later, because he was different. He wasn’t bemoaning that fact. It was what it was. The majority of the population judged most people who were different.

Then again, she didn’t.

She didn’t judge him. And he had a strong suspicion that she hadn’t been the least bit scared of him. She seemed, in fact, to be fascinated.

A frown stole over his face at the thought. He didn’t fascinate people. He disgusted them. Revolted them. Sickened them. He didn’t fascinate. He never fascinated.

But times were changing. The day a scarred, disfigured man couldn’t walk down the street, striking fear in the hearts of mortal men was a day he didn’t want to see. He was just getting used to things. Getting comfortable with how the world worked. Damn her for trying to change that.

“So, I decided to call a few more of your teachers,” the principal continued. “And, lo’ and behold, none of them remembered you either. Not a single one. And, no offense, Mr. Wruck, but you’re rather unforgettable.”

That was subtle.

The principal studied his face and Iggy had the distinct impression he was horrified. It happened.

“Then, I called a—” he shuffled through some more papers “—ah yes, a Mrs. Sherbet.”

Her first name was Peach. So not kidding.

“From Cincinnati. And finally someone remembered you. Quite fondly, to be honest.”

The principal looked tired and Iggy wondered if he’d gotten any sleep last night after everything that had happened. Probably not.

“In fact, if I had to guess, I’d say she was the president of your fan club.”

Iggy liked her, too.

“She couldn’t say enough good things about you and she practically begged me to give you a chance. Said she was thrilled that you were going to school. Apparently, there’d been some trouble?”

He trailed off, waiting for Iggy to fill in the details. Wasn’t gonna happen.

When Iggy stared blankly at him, imitating every teen in every movie he’d ever seen, the principal continued. “She said there’d been some trouble and that you . . . how’d she say it? You saved her?”

“No trouble,” Iggy offered. “She thought she was being followed. She was mistaken.”

“Not according to the police reports.”

Bloody hell. Iggy drew in a deep breath and leaned forward to stand. At least he could tell Mrs. Reinhart he’d given it his best shot. She could hardly fault him for the outcome.

Before he could get to his feet, however, a woman hurried in carrying a tray of food and a change of clothes for the principal.

“Did you know that one of your students is out there right now trying to spy on you—? Oh, my.”

She’d turned and seen Iggy. The principal’s wife. One Mrs. Pollyanna Keller.

Iggy sat back down and looked away.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize you were visiting with a student.”

Mr. Keller rose to his feet. “Polly, what are you doing here? Why aren’t you at home resting?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Jack, I don’t need to rest. And you forgot your lunch.”

He grinned. “Maybe I meant to.”

This was getting uncomfortable.

“Oh, you.” She pursed her lips prettily for him.

The principal took the change of clothes from her and she placed the plate of food on a side table. “Polly,” he said from behind her as he hung the suit on a hook, “you heard the doctor.”

“And you—” she began, but she stopped when she got a good look at her husband’s visitor.

Iggy had partially concealed his face with a hand. It had been dark, but she could’ve seen his face nonetheless. He realized too late that showing his hand was what gave him away. That was the only part of him she had seen clearly.

She gasped, the sound soft, but Mr. Keller turned and hurried over to her. She brushed past him and rounded the desk to where Iggy sat.

Busted, he lowered his hand and gave her his full attention.

“It’s you,” she said, her eyes watering instantly.

“I don’t think we’ve met,” he replied, trying in vain to salvage the situation.

They’d have to leave tonight. The last thing he wanted was to be questioned by the local authorities. Again, he didn’t like interrogations. Mrs. Reinhart would be disappointed. She loved that old mansion. Had big plans for it.

“No, it was you. I remember. You were there.” Mrs. Keller covered her mouth with trembling hands and he steeled his heart.

“Polly,” Mr. Keller said, his tone stern, “what is going on?”

With tears pushing past her lashes, she knelt before Iggy.

The steel collapsed and he bit back a curse. “No,” he insisted, his expression giving nothing away, “I wasn’t there, Mrs. Keller.”

He cast a quick glance at Mr. Keller then brought it back to the woman at his feet.

After a moment, she nodded in understanding. But the gratitude on her face melted him. He’d always had a soft spot for feisty, middle-aged women, and he could tell she gave her husband a run for his money.

She should, he thought acerbically. What had happened to Mrs. Keller was her husband’s fault.

No. No it wasn’t, he chided.

It was no one’s fault except the men who decided to take revenge against some imagined offense on an innocent person. He’d overheard the gang members he’d been following in the hopes that they’d lead him to the other Wraiths. He’d listened as they planned the attack.

Mr. Keller had wronged one of them, a punk named Stahl, and he wanted his day of vengeance. Which was only one of the reasons the Wraiths needed to be brought down. There were others. Plenty of others.

Iggy finally allowed the barest hint of a smile to lift one corner of his mouth as he gazed down at Mrs. Keller.

Unfortunately, the principal had no idea what to make of the situation. He stood behind his wife, livid. “What is going on?” Then he looked at Iggy, that centuries-old accusation written all over his face. “Was that you?”

“No,” Mrs. Keller said.

“Did you hurt my wife?”

“I was mistaken.” Mrs. Keller put out her hand for him to help her up.

He took it, but Iggy stood to help her as well.

The principal pushed him away, almost dropping his wife in the process.

She regained her footing then swatted at her husband’s shoulder. “It wasn’t him,” she repeated, before looking up at Iggy, her eyes glistening with emotion. With gratitude.

“Pollyanna Keller,” the principal began.

“No!” she said, this time with the authority of someone who’d worked with high school students for 30 years. She turned and stabbed her husband with a practiced glare. “It wasn’t him.” She put her hands on his shoulders, and said softer, “It wasn’t him.”

Comprehension slowly took root. He may not have understood everything, but he knew Iggy hadn’t hurt his wife. He gave her a hesitant nod.

She turned back to Iggy. Took his scarred hand into hers. Brought it to her mouth and kissed it. “He wasn’t there,” she said again. She placed a hand on his cheek as a sob wrenched out of her chest. “He wasn’t there.”

Iggy brushed the back of his index finger across her jaw, just as he had the night before, then covered the hand on his cheek with his own.

She began to sob in earnest. “Thank you,” she whispered, before ducking her head and hurrying out of her husband’s office.

With Mrs. Keller gone, Iggy straightened and waited for the fatal words. They could be anything really. “I’m calling the police.” Or “I’m going to have to report this.” Or “If you ever go near my wife again . . .”

Instead, the principal stepped closer, coming toe-to-toe with someone he saw as an enemy.

Iggy braced himself for a punch. He’d take it, but only because he’d need time to get the house packed up and he didn’t want the authorities coming ‘round, mucking up his getaway. In the town’s defense, he did put several people in the hospital the night before.

But the principal reached down and took Iggy’s hand into his in a firm shake. “As I was saying, young man, welcome to Geneva High.” He gave Iggy’s palm a reassuring squeeze. “If you need anything,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion, “anything at all, you come to me.”

Iggy wondered if he should tell the man why his wife was targeted but decided against it. He nodded, instead, then pulled out of his grip, uncomfortable. People, real world people, weren’t nice to him. They were suspicious. Judgmental. Accusatory.

“Mrs. Vasquez will help you with your class schedule,” the principal said, showing Iggy out, his voice fading as he explained the electives Iggy would get to choose from.

Having heard everything, Vivi stood at the office door that led to the conference room, her jaw hanging in disbelief. Everything Frankie said was true. Not that she didn’t believe her, but . . .

She took out her phone and sent a group text that read, “Frankie, your guy is here. He started school. Here! And you won’t believe what he did. You were right. He’s . . . he’s amazing.”

 

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