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Killer Look

by cnkguy
Killer Look

killer lookReading Time: 23 minutes

Killer Looks

By

Shannon Higdon

Daniella flew through the front door and threw her books on the coffee table with disdain.

“I know…right? I mean, geez…what a bitch.” She was talking through her Bluetooth which was commonplace but still earned her a fair number of strange looks in public. It was 2017 for heaven’s sake, she often wondered, how could there still be people in the western world unfamiliar with basic technology? It blew her mind that anyone older than thirty could function in this world anyway. What the hell did they do before the internet…look things up in books? Maybe that was why she had so much contempt for her school-books; they were just so antiquated. Did anything really need to be printed anymore?

“Sarah’s known that I’ve been into Darryl since…I don’t know…like, the beginning of last year. She promised me that she wouldn’t go out with him.” She continued the conversation while bounding up the stairs, two at a time and down the hall to her bedroom, which was in a desperate need of a design overhaul. She couldn’t remember how many times she’s promised herself that the “New Kids on the Block” and “Ricky Martin” posters would finally come down, but in the end, never quite came to fruition.

“Oh please! Darryl and Mickey are in two different leagues. Why the hell would I ever consider go out with a scrub like that?” She fell onto her twin bed still adorned with pink lace and a “My Little Pony” theme. Sometimes the childish motif of her room irritated her, a blatant notice of how far removed she was from the life she dreamed of as a fashionista in New York or Venice but more often than not she found the room full of memories to be a comfort; a reminder of simpler, happy times when “hide and seek” was something to be taken seriously and responsibility was just a word Daniella couldn’t spell.

The only thing in her room that represented the future she was interested in was the massive make-up desk and chair her parents had given her last year. That, and about five hundred different types of make-up; foundations, polishes, blushes, and eye-liners. She had assembled a collection that would be the envy of many professional make-up artists and she took a lot of pride and her ability to sit any of her friends down in the chair and have them leave looking and feeling amazing. Her girl-friends had given her the nickname “Killer” because, despite its ominous sound, she always created killer looks.

“Chet…really? Chet? O.M.G. Shirley, have you lost your mind? I don’t care how rich his parents are, that kid is an absolute freakazoid.” She broke into unrestrained laughter at whatever response she received from the other end of her earpiece. “You need help, girl. You’re a friggin’ mess; but you know that already…right?” From her free ear Daniella heard a loud knock at the front door. Normally, she wouldn’t be in any rush to see who it was but there was something about the knock that caught her off-guard. It was louder and one would expect, the kind of authoritative pounding that makes one think the door will crack or at very least the police must be on the other side.

“Girl, I gotta go. There’s someone breaking down the front door so I guess I’d better see what the hell’s going on.” A pause, then, “Yea…yea. Okay. I love you too. Goodb-…oh shit, wait. Whose house are we getting ready at tomorrow? Jenny? Okay. Are you driving? Uh huh…okay; I guess pick me up around five and we’ll me the guys there.” There was another series of pounding downstairs which prompted the conversation’s end and Daniella pulled out her earpiece and scurried back down the stairs. She was the only one home for at least another hour and there was a split-second of indecision as to whether or not to check the peephole first, but the baseball bat behind the door and her ten years of martial arts training pushed the thought aside.

Opening the door, Pavlovian smile on her face, she was a little surprised to see an empty porch. Maybe it was a salesperson that moved on or kids? She shrugged and began to close the door again when something caught her eye; a small unmarked cardboard box leaning against the rocking chair. It must have been a delivery service but she struggled to figure out who as the box was entirely unmarked; not even a shipping address. How the hell did they know where to deliver it?

She scooped it up and gave it the traditional, Christmas morning shake. It was relatively light; whatever was in there was apparently packed tightly because nothing rattled. She took the package into the kitchen and deposited it on the counter while she grabbed a pair of scissors from the junk drawer and a ginger-ale from the fridge. She was very careful navigating the thick, brown tape with the scissors; the last thing she needed the day before her senior prom was to break one of her nails. They were already perfectly manicured as well as being natural. If she chipped one, she would have to take them all down and that would mean artificial nails for prom and that could be a potential nightmare. What would the girls say?

After opening the package with precision seen only in operating theatres, she began sifting through the Styrofoam peanuts to find a very unexpected surprise: make-up samples. She didn’t remember ordering anything lately, but since she had been putting her make-up tutorials on Youtube there were companies that would send unsolicited samples for her to review. It hadn’t happened a lot, but was becoming more frequent as her subscribers increased and was always a pleasant surprise. It was like getting a birthday present…just because; it always made her day.

Daniella squealed with joy as she pulled out the set; they all looked beautiful. In fact, the colors were absolutely perfect to accompany her prom dress and, quite frankly, couldn’t have come at a better time. It was a very unusual package, however, as the samples didn’t include any company names; only the colors of each item. She had just about decided that there would be no way to find out where the items came from when she found one business card at the bottom of the box. It was just as odd.

On one side was a toll-free telephone number and the other side had one simple word: Ultra. Well that sounded familiar at least, but what a weird advertising style; very understated.

“I guess they let the products speak for themselves,” she said to no one in particular and proceeded to put it all back in the box for the time being…all except for the lipstick. There was a student council meeting a little later in the evening and the color was just understated enough that she would be presentable as the student council president they all expected without looking like the whore she knew some whispered her to be. Haters will hate after all. She threw the tube into her jeans pocket and set the unmarked box in the hall closet next to her prom dress marveling again at how well the colors went together. She loved it when things came together like this.

Over the next ninety minutes she finished her homework and recorded a twenty minute video on proper techniques for acrylic fingernail painting. Being as popular as she was, there were a lot of things said about her but the one thing no one could accuse her of was being lazy or unmotivated. Everyone that knew her was amazed at her ability to just…go. Constantly in motion; striving and achieving, she had been a dynamo since her legs mastered the ability to walk.

There was a brief session of hugs and kisses in the foyer as her parents got home and she was preparing to leave for her meeting at the school. Tonight they were finalizing prom policies and dealing with the rumors that several students were planning on bringing marijuana to the hallowed dance and that, of course, would be unacceptable. Her mom had some news she desperately wanted to covey about a new boy in the neighborhood but Daniella, who was already two minutes behind schedule, had to wave her off before scuttling out the door; keys in one hand, purse in the other.

Taking a moment to let her 2000 Bronco warm up, the heat always took a few minutes anyway, she dug the lipstick out of her Saint Laurent bag. It was a light color, somewhere between rose and pink, entitled simply “smile”. Marveling in the rearview mirror at its coverage and how glistening and moist it made her lips look, she gave a small squeal of joy. One of main lessons her father had instilled in her was the ability to appreciate small gifts and little victories.

She actually lost count of the number of compliments she got after the meeting on her lips. Daniella, of all people, knew the power that certain make-ups could have for some people and that amazing things could be done but she had never known any of her lipsticks to have left the type of impression that this one apparently did. Driving home after, she had already begun composing her review in her head while getting equally excited about using the rest of the samples for prom tomorrow night. It was well known that she was the odds-on favorite to win prom queen; she might as well look the part.

That night as she was getting ready for bed, she attempted to remove the lipstick with a special make-up removal cloth but it wasn’t coming off; not even smudging in the least. She wasn’t aware that it was “long-wear” lipstick but that actually pleased her; she loved long-wear make-up. The only downside was that you needed special removal cream which she was currently out of.

“Oh well,” she mumbled to herself, “Guess I’ll pick some up tomorrow” before climbing into bed for the evening and dreaming of running her own fashion empire. The morning came with a sprawling, cloudless sky filled with sunshine and warmth, at least twenty degrees warmer than the day before; it was perfect. There are certain days in a young lady’s life that are looked forward to more than others; obviously, birthdays and Christmas were always special and there was no shortage of dreamers and planners for the perfect wedding and even kids for her sanity-questionable friends…but prom night…oh prom night…it was an entity unto itself.

It was a magical night where all the girls were princesses, all the boys were princes, everyone looked like they stepped straight from the pages of a fairy tale and it came right in the middle of the formative years before time could steal away their sense of awe and replace it with a jaded nature. There would be dancing and laughing and the very real possibility that she could lose her virginity later in the evening if Carl continued on the same path of gentlemanly behavior he had been displaying thus-far. Carl wasn’t Darryl; who was? But he was still sweet, smart and hot and with the boys in her school that was a rare triple-threat.

After climbing out of bed and before her shower, Daniella stole a quick look in her mirror and was pleasantly amazed at how good her lipstick still looked; as if she had just applied it. This stuff was going to get a great review! After carefully picking the day’s ensemble she was off to school in a mood that could only be categorized as giddy; full of excitement for the evening’s festivities and it only escalated at the day progressed. The school day went quicker than usual as all anyone could talk about was the prom and teachers pretty much gave up on doing any actual teaching for the day. Time really did fly when you were having fun.

Her friend, Sarah, picked up her up after school and they carted her dress, shoes and accessories back to her place where three other girls would meet them so they could all get ready together and Daniella could do everyone’s make-up. Of course, with her secret weapon, none of them would look as good as her. Sarah’s mom would take video of the entire process while her dad would pull out his old 1980’s Nikon and become more than a little obnoxious with the constant flashes. The girls could only do their best to work around them and amuse themselves with the situation.

“Old people…” Sarah mumbled at one point and the entire group fell down with laughter. Her mom, not hearing what she had said, laughed right along with them; happy to be in the room and re-living her own memories vicariously. When it came time to apply their faces Daniella, with the care of a great artist, turned each girl into a radiant, unbelievable version of themselves. She, of course, did her own last. The foundation, simply labeled “Mask”, was smooth and airy; not quite a lotion…more like a whipped cream. It felt like a refreshing moisturizer and glided over her face with ease leaving it looking flawless. Easily the best foundation she had ever used.

The rest of the kit was equally amazing. The eye liner “Blink”, the mascara “Spikes”, and the blush “Finale” were all the best she had seen and she was a lot more than a novice. All her “bitches” agreed and, despite the “killer” looks she had already created for them, they complained with jealously. Unfortunately, the samples were just that and there was really only enough for a single application so they couldn’t get too upset. It wouldn’t matter in the long run though because she was sure that they would all be ordering more after prom.

It didn’t appear necessary to apply any more of the “Smile” as it looked perfect still but she gave it a quick swipe anyway. No reason not to put on the finishing touch. Their dates came together in a rented stretch-limo, including a very dashing Carl, around seven and, after another round of pictures, the group was off to dinner. During the second course Daniella couldn’t help but to notice that the other girls all had to use their napkins to remove some of their lipstick to eat. Julia even managed to get a bit on her teeth which no one told her about for ten minutes while they took a number of selfies with her that they could use for blackmail at a later date.

Daniella didn’t have that problem. The day had been so hectic that she hadn’t realized until food was actually placed before her that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. She worked on prom decorations through lunch and left soon after she had gotten home so she wasn’t able to grab her usual snack or protein shake. All of that led to a ravenous appetite and she finished an entire rack of Lamb without having to remove or re-apply her lipstick at all. Even the foundation remained smooth and spotless despite the workout her jaw gave it through dinner.

Being the make-up queen that she was, it was always a hot topic of conversation with other girls at school; many seeking advice. The prom was no exception. The number of girls who asked about what she was wearing was only exceeded by the number of compliments she received. Half way through the evening, while taking a break from dancing, it came up again with Stacey.

“Who did you say you were wearing again?” Stacey called out over the music while they sat at the odd angles their dresses would allow. “Because it still looked amaze-balls. Like, you’ve been sweating and shit too and…damn bitch; you friggin’ kill me. You’re gonna be voted “most likely to look twenty when your forty” for sure.”

“Thanks bitch,” Daniella called back, “It’s weird but its ‘Ultra’.”

“Oh yea…” Stacey nodded her head in agreement. “I love ‘Ulta Beauty’. I could die in that their store.”

“Really?” Daniella perked up. “Where?”

“In the mall…next to ‘GameStop’.” Daniella shook her head ‘no’.

“No…not ‘Ulta’. They’re called ‘Ultra’; different company, I think.”

“Are you saying ‘Ulta’?” Stacey called back and Daniella nodded back.

“Yea. ‘Ultra’. Unless maybe it’s Ultra Ulta.” She laughed and Stacey, not really hearing the full comment, smiled back.

“Well…whatever it is, I want some. You need to email me the hook-up, okay?”

“Dude…it’s weird but I’ve only got a telephone number for the place. I can email that but I might as well text it to you.” Stacey looked horrified.

“You’re shittin’ me! I gotta call and speak to an actual person? W.T.F. is that all about?”

“I don’t know,” Daniella agreed, “It’s definitely different. I think it’s probably a small operation but that still wouldn’t explain why they don’t have a website. Maybe it’s a ‘retro’ thing.”

“Totally retro. I kind of dig it.” Stacey called out as she scampered back to the dancefloor which was basically just girls dancing at that point. It could have been because the guys were all out back smoking or it could have been due to the deejay’s choosing ‘It’s Raining Men’. The rest of the night went without a hitch and the group all had a great time although most of their dates were high as kites by the end of the dance.

Carl was the perfect gentleman Daniella had expected…or at least hoped that he would be and she was liking his chances as scoring more and more. He, at very least, had earned a serious make-out session. After the dance the group went back to Chip’s house to change into more comfortable clothes which they had kept in the limo’s trunk and which seemed more suitable for an evening of ‘partying’. Chip’s place was a very calculated decision as his father worked third shift and his mother was a black-out drunk so they knew they would have it all to themselves so to speak.

The group began smoking pot and drinking vodka almost immediately after walking through the door. Daniella didn’t get high; that was for lazy people. She would, on few occasions, drink alcohol however and tonight, she had long since decided, would be one of those occasions; curious to see everyone’s reaction to the “good girl” going bad for the night. Carl for one, she thought, would be in for a big surprise.

The size of the party quickly escalated to nearly half of the junior and senior classes; all the while Chip’s mother lying comatose in a bedroom beneath a pile of coats. To say the party ended up being “epic” would be an understatement. At least that’s what the pictures and videos would suggest. Daniella really couldn’t remember. At some point, early on, the vodka overtook her ability to remain vertical and then shortly after that her ability to remain conscious. Poor Carl didn’t even get a kiss goodnight.

She woke up in Chip’s bed with Sarah and Beth and they all smelled flammable. Her movement and subsequent moans woke the other two who chimed in with wails of their own.

“W.T.F.? How much did we drink last night?” Sarah asked while smacking her lips together to display how dry her mouth was. “And why the hell am I waking up in a bed with you bitches instead of three or four guys from the football team?” Daniella poked her in the hip, knowing it to be a sensitive spot.

“Slut. You wouldn’t know what to do with more than two of them anyway.” Beth’s moan turned into a giggle and Sarah was having none of it.

“Bitch, you might not know what to do with more than two of them but I get ‘Pornhub’. You’d be shocked at what I can do.”

“No…” Daniella said while standing and stretching, “I wouldn’t. I know what kind of perv you are. Hell, I keep wondering when I’m gonna find you and your dog in bed together.” Beth laughed harder and Sarah pointed an accusing finger at Daniella.

“You better not talk any shit about Mister Biggles. You can say whatever the hell you want about me and my mother and my father and my brother and my grandmother and my house and any damn thing you want, but leave…Mister…Biggles…out…of…it. You got it, bitch?” The three girls were silent for a second and then fell together on the bed with tearful laughter.

“You know what I hate?” Beth asked when they finally calmed.

“Spiders and earthquakes?” Daniella guessed.

“Death and taxes?” Sarah joined in and the game was on as they hit her with their rapid fire sarcasm. “Horses?” “Lizards?” “Cornflakes?” “Keanu Reeves?” “Slow wi-fi?” “Rainy days?” “Unrealistic female portrayals in romantic comedies?” “Mondays?” Finally Beth threw up her hands in frustration.

“You guys really are bitches. No…well, I do hate Monday’s but that’s Garfield’s fault, not mine. No…what I hate is the fact that Sarah and I look like squished turds this morning and you look like you just stepped out of the salon. Seriously, what the hell?”

“Yea…” Sarah agreed, “Squished turds for sure.”

“Listen,” Beth continued, “You have to promise me that when you get more of that stuff I’ll be the first one to get some.” Daniella nodded ‘okay’ but it wasn’t enough as Beth jumped from the bed to grab her shoulders tightly and force direct eye contact. “Promise me. You have to say it. I don’t care who you gotta’ screw over or disappoint; I had better be the very first to get it. Now say it. No matter the consequences, I’ll be the first. Promise!” It took an actual verbal promise that, no matter what, Beth would be the first to get a batch of the new make-up to get out of her death grip; she was surprisingly strong for her size.

Curious to see if the make-up really held up as well as they were saying Daniella rushed to the bathroom to check her reflection; as well as to relieve to her swelling bladder. Her friends were right; the make-up looked like it had just been applied and she was amazed. She grabbed Chip’s mom’s compact and studied it closely as she peed. There was none of the drying or flaking one often saw from long-wear make-up. There was no smearing or smudging whatsoever despite her evening of drunken…whatever.

“Man…these guys are awesome,” she mumbled to herself. The bird’s nest on her head aside, she looked good enough to go straight to a wedding…or at very least, a funeral; definitely good enough for IHOP which is where the group found themselves thirty minutes later. Once again, Daniella was ravenous and the food was so good she literally sent her compliments to the chef. “You mean the cook?” Peggy, their server, had asked; obviously never hearing Fred referred to as a “chef” before.

An hour after that saw her settling into her bed; more than willing to let a Saturday slip by for the sake of her physical recovery. She had stopped by Walmart on her way home to pick up some long-wear make-up removal cream but she was way too beat to do anything with it once she was home and within eyeshot of her pink pillows. It was called “long-wear” after all; there wasn’t any rush. She wanted to do a video of the removal process anyway and that required way more effort than she was willing to give in her hung-over condition and so the bed won out.

It was dark outside when she finally woke up although it took a moment for her to find that out. Her eyelids were stuck initially and it took some effort to get them open as well as hurting to do so. She cried out from the unexpected pain. On top of that her entire face felt itchy and tight. Daniella wondered to herself if the make-up contained some type of hyaluronic acid or stem-cell derivatives that the women in their fifties sought out so frequently but Daniella was only seventeen and in no need for a face-lift as of yet.

She tried to scratch the itchier spots but the skin was numb and she couldn’t even feel her own fingers on her face.

“What the…” She scrambled out of bed and turned on the array of lights on her make-up desk. The face was still immaculate to the eye, but considerably less so to the touch. The make-up was beginning to stiffen, now to the point of a thick, weathered leather. The skin behind the mask was stuck firmly to the other side being significantly restrained from its normal movements; so much so that it was nearly a nearly excruciating effort to simply smile.

Frantically, she ran downstairs to grab her Walmart bag and had a wad of the removal cream in her hand before she even got back. The anxiety only escalated when the cream had no effect whatsoever. The make-up mask wasn’t coming off and it felt like it was getting harder by the second; with the simple act of blinking becoming more difficult each time. She screamed once again when she tried to wipe away the mascara. Her eyelashes, although thick and beautiful, were as sharp as little razor blades and when she pulled her hand away there was blood on her fingers.

Tears struggled to slip through as Daniella found herself running back down the stairs. Where the hell did I leave that box? With scrambled eggs for brains it took twenty, painful minutes to remember and then retrieve the unmarked container and what she was really looking for: the business card. Cursing herself for not having put the card in her purse the day before she grabbed her cell phone and dialed the one eight-hundred number; her anger and fear rising with each digit pushed.

She put the phone on speaker and gently tried to massage her irritated face while it rang to no relief. Finally after three five rings a feminine, automated voice began its brief pre-recorded message.

“Thank you for calling Ultra. Dial ‘one’ for the Ultra experience. Dial ‘two’ to leave the name of your Ultra gift recipient. If you really must speak with the representative, then dial ‘three’.” The entire tone was very odd.

“What the hell?” she muttered under her breath. She was so caught off-guard by the unusual recording she didn’t even realize that she had hit ‘one’ on her touchscreen until the recording started back up.

“The Ultra experience is…” The voice cut itself off before it could finish the sentence and was suddenly replaced by an unearthly sound. The noise could have easily been called “indescribable” but Daniella knew exactly what it was the moment it started; recognizing it on a primordial level. It was the sound of hundreds, if not thousands of human voices crying out in pain. It was a multi-layered effect with different types of wails and screams at different decibels coming together in a symphony of pain. It was blood-curdling and she threw her cell to the ground, fortunately shutting down the noise in the process.

Running to the kitchen sink she fought her heaving stomach. It wasn’t that she was totally opposed to the idea of throwing-up in that moment, but rather it was her concern that her mouth wouldn’t open wide enough to allow the vomit out without choking her to death which kept it at bay. The whole situation was one that was quickly speeding past just being worried about her vanity; death felt like an entirely possible scenario at that point and Daniella was scared…damn scared.

It took a few minutes to compose herself although, as her aching cheeks suggested, time was not on her side. The make-up mask was becoming more and more rigid while keeping her skin prisoner in the process. It was starting to feel like her face had been Krazy-Glued to a wall or some other unforgiving surface and ‘urgency’ was starting to feel like the theme of the evening. She scooped her cell phone off the floor and thanked Apple for the shatterproof screen.

Redial brought back the creepy digital voice, “Thank you for calling Ultra. Dial ‘one’ for the…” Daniella cut it off by pressing ‘three’ as quickly as she could. “Thank you,” the voice responded, “one moment please.” After a couple seconds of silence the robotic, female voice was replaced by an actual human, female voice.

“This is the representative. What is it you need?” Her sentences were curt but her tone was very sing-song as though she were speaking to a group of kindergarteners.

“What do I need?” Daniella asked in disbelief as though this woman should already know what a horrifying product they had sent her way. “I don’t even know where to start.” She wanted to scream but the lack of movement in her face impeded her ability to enunciate well, so she sacrificed the decibels for articulation.

“What I need…is for you to tell me why the hell you guys sent me these products that are trying to kill me and how the hell to get them off my face.”

“I’m sorry you’re dis-pleased with the products and we thank you for giving them a try.” The woman’s tone still didn’t belie her words and it was very off-putting.

“Thank me? Are you serious? Did you hear what I said? The damn stuff is stuck to my face and its turning into concrete while I’m wearing it.” There was a desperate pleading in Daniella’s voice that stood as a stark contrast to the sickly-sweet tone of the woman on the other end of the line.

“Yes,” the woman interrupted to agree, “That’s correct. You won’t be able to remove the Ultra Make-up Line without the special Ultra Make-up removal cream.”

“Removal cream? What the fuck? Is this some type of sick scam? You gonna start blackmailing my family now?”

“No Daniella,” she calmly replied, “it’s nothing like that.” Daniella was shocked into a momentary silence. How the hell did that woman know her name?

“My n-n-name…” she stuttered.

“Yes, Daniella Elaine Cooper. That is your name.” She might as well have been informing a baby who had never heard it before.

“I didn’t tell you my name. What…how…how do you know who I am?”

“I know all of Ultra’s customers.”

“CUSTOMERS!” Daniella did scream this time. “I didn’t order this shit; I didn’t ask for it and I didn’t pay for it!” The woman gave a small chuckle on the other end.

“Well…you’re paying for it now, aren’t you?” Daniella’s blood was beginning to boil.

“You smug bitch! I don’t know who you think you are but I will RUIN you on Youtube. I want to know your name. Who is your boss? I want to speak to your boss…RIGHT NOW!”

“Well, Miss Cooper, my name is Diane and if you’ll calm down I’d be happy to let you speak to the president of Ultra Industries. Is that what you would like?”

“Yes dammit. Right friggin’ now, Diane! Get his ass on the phone.”

“Very well…hold please.” Daniella slammed her phone against the counter in frustration as the line went quiet again; apparently on hold.

“Dammit!” she screamed to the empty kitchen; her face was starting to ache considerably without even mentioning the pain from trying to move her mouth to speak. Somewhere between prom and that moment she had stepped into a horror movie and her brain fought to keep up with the transition. After about thirty seconds the line came back to life; it was Diane again.

“This is the president; how may I help you?” Daniella’s teeth gritted with the rage as she desperately wanted to break something.

“Is this a joke, Diane? I know that’s still you. Are you not going to let me speak to anyone else?”

“Well…here’s the thing, Miss Cooper.” Her voice still bright and sunny, “It doesn’t matter what department to ask to be transferred to; shipping, production, marketing…the president, you’re always going to end up with me. I’m all there is, all you will get, and in a very real way, all you should be concerned with in the entire world. I’m Diane, Miss Cooper; and ‘Diane’ is your god.” It suddenly occurred to Daniella that Diane might very well be insane and she wanted to break and cry. Were it not for her most primitive survival instinct, she might very well have done just that.

“Diane…for the love of God…please Diane; where can I get the Ultra removal cream?”

“Well that’s easy, silly-pants. I can send it right over to you. In fact, I can get it there in a matter of minutes.”

“So you live close to me then?” Some part of her was still trying to piece it all together.

“I never said that, Daniella, and it’s not wise to make assumptions.”

“Okay…fine,” she pleaded, “what do I need to do? Do you want money…how much?”

“No dear. I don’t need your money. I just need for you to understand what’s at stake here.” Daniella’s head was swimming. What was she talking about?

“What’s at stake?” she mumbled back to Diane.

“Yes dear, exactly. You have two choices this evening and, looking at my clock, you don’t have a long time to decide between them. Your first choice is the avenue of apathy; simply do nothing. Go to bed and hope it’ll all be better in the morning. I can assure that if you choose this route the changes to your face will be perpetual. Your face will look like a beautiful china doll for the rest of your life, although you won’t be able to actually use it anymore. I can only say that if you choose to go this way, I hope you have an affinity for straws. You might be surprised however at how many of your generation choose to go that way…or maybe you wouldn’t.”

“And the other choice?” Daniella prompted.

“Ah yes…the other choice indeed. This is the decision that ends with the Ultra make-up removal cream in your hands and the make-up off your face; presumably early enough that no permanent damage has been done to that beautiful mug of yours.”

“What do you want from me?”

“I want you to choose someone; someone you know, someone to receive the next special delivery of the Ultra sample package. If you do that then the problem becomes theirs and you may wash your hands of it. Just pick the next person and you’re free.” Daniella struggled to process this information but the one tidbit that stuck in her brain was the fact that if she had to pick someone to go through this horrible ordeal then that meant someone else had probably picked her as well. The thought made her sick. Who would do such a thing to her?

The surge of indignant resentment was quickly replaced by shame when she realized that she might be doing that very thing to somebody else in the near future. Was she really capable of that? Could she really participate in this sick type of chain-mail? Catching her reflection in the microwave oven was enough to answer the question for her. Her face, even in the hazy, black reflection was already beginning to look…artificial. Just as Diane had said; it began to resemble a china doll; or rather a china doll horror mask that one would buy for Halloween. It really pissed her off; enough even to not concede quite yet.

“Maybe I take the third choice, Diane.” Her voice was calm and smooth this time as she concentrated intently on her cadence and tone; both of which were hampered by her ever increasing stiffness. She could see the point coming where she would have to master the art of ventriloquism in order to converse at all. “Maybe I choose to go to the police and I have your sorry ass thrown in jail for the rest of your natural life…or worse. This might even warrant the electric chair, you psycho-bitch.”

“Well Miss Cooper, you could do that,” she sounded unfazed, “and, in all honesty, you might be successful; but that won’t fix your face. In fact, I can pretty much guarantee the opposite; and before you rush off in an ambulance let me also assure you that there will be nothing the doctors’ will be able to do for you. Here at Ultra, we take quality control very seriously and each batch is carefully monitored to ensure that all necessary ingredients are present. Including those things which modern, western medicine would call superstition and fairy-tale nonsense; things that some might call…magic.

“You’re insane, Diane. You know that…right?”

“Perhaps Miss Cooper, but that doesn’t change the fact that you have a decision to make. Frankly, we here at Ultra would be proud to have you as a spokes-model if you choose the high road. It should bring a completely new audience to your webcasts. I figure you’ve got a couple hours at most before the change is un-reversible so I would use that time wisely, were I you. Please feel free to call us back at Ultra once you’ve made your decision and have a wonderful evening.” The line went dead and Daniella collapsed to the floor.

She wanted desperately to run to her mother’s arms for answers and support but her parents were at her brother’s football game and wouldn’t be back until much later…too much later. As much as she hated the idea, she was on her own for this one and she picked her phone back up and hit redial; hating herself more than she had ever imagined that she could. Before the recording could advance she hit ‘two’ and after a quick prompt said, “Beth Whitaker at four eleven Rose Palm Drive,” and hung up.

A few minutes later there was a pounding at the front door and she ran as quickly as she could to throw it open; still wanting to see the parties responsible for this atrocity. There was, as she half expected, no one there, of course; only a small white paper bag with a single, white tube of cream inside. The container was solid white and devoid of any markings other than a single word printed in black: ‘Freedom’.

It took nearly an hour to remove all the make-up but he cream did its job just as Diane said it would. Once the horrific mask was completely gone, Daniella climbed into her bed and pulled the sheets over her head like she did as a child. She could hear her parents and brother come in downstairs but she was in no condition to greet them. Her mind was so troubled; she just wanted to sleep and put this whole nightmare behind her. As she drifted off her thoughts presented her with a new concern: what was she going to do with the rest of her life? She was going to have to make a new game-plan because one thing was for certain…she would never again wear make-up so long as she lived.

 

CREDIT : Shannon Higdon

 

 

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Darkstar

by cnkguy
Darkstar

DarkstarReading Time: 57 minutes

Darkstar

One​ ​breath​ ​and​ ​then​ ​another.​ ​He​ ​could​ ​feel​ ​his​ ​heart​ ​slow​ ​within​ ​his​ ​chest,​ ​just​ ​the​ ​way​ ​it​ ​always​ ​did​ ​when that​ ​feeling​ ​drew​ ​closer.​ ​Soon​ ​that​ ​voice​ ​would​ ​enter​ ​his​ ​mind,​ ​the​ ​one​ ​that​ ​he​ ​knew​ ​haunted​ ​more​ ​than​ ​only  him.​ ​All​ ​he​ ​had​ ​to​ ​do​ ​was​ ​lay​ ​there​ ​and​ ​soon,​ ​that​ ​voice​ ​would​ ​ask​ ​him​ ​if​ ​he​ ​was​ ​ready​ ​to​ ​die.​ ​This​ ​time,​ ​he  hadn’t​ ​the​ ​strength​ ​to​ ​say​ ​anything​ ​more​ ​than​ ​yes.

*​ ​*​ ​*

“God​ ​what​ ​a​ ​mess…”​ ​His​ ​voice​ ​trailed​ ​off​ ​as​ ​he​ ​took​ ​a​ ​step​ ​back.​ ​He​ ​hadn’t​ ​even​ ​entered​ ​the house​ ​yet.​ ​All​ ​he​ ​could​ ​see​ ​was​ ​the​ ​blood​ ​across​ ​the​ ​window,​ ​produced​ ​undoubtedly​ ​from some​ ​horror​ ​that​ ​lay​ ​upon​ ​the​ ​interior​ ​of​ ​the​ ​room.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​been​ ​woken​ ​from​ ​a​ ​sound dreamless,​ ​blessedly​ ​dreamless,​ ​sleep​ ​and​ ​now​ ​blinked​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​to​ ​be​ ​sure​ ​that​ ​this​ ​wasn’t​ ​a nightmare​ ​of​ ​his​ ​own​ ​fabrication.
“Sir?​ ​Sir,​ ​we​ ​have​ ​started​ ​to​ ​get​ ​pictures​ ​and​ ​the​ ​ambulance​ ​is​ ​on​ ​the​ ​way.”
“Ambulance?​ ​I​ ​thought​ ​you​ ​said​ ​that​ ​there​ ​was​ ​no​ ​one​ ​left​ ​alive.”​ ​A​ ​strong​ ​furrow​ ​creased​ ​a brow​ ​that​ ​had​ ​already​ ​been​ ​on​ ​its​ ​way​ ​to​ ​a​ ​scowl.
“We​ ​were​ ​wrong.​ ​There​ ​is​ ​a​ ​child.”

*​ ​*​ ​*

“Elia,​ ​Elia​ ​come​ ​away​ ​from​ ​the​ ​window,​ ​baby.​ ​Come​ ​finish​ ​your​ ​lunch​ ​and​ ​we’ll​ ​go​ ​to​ ​the​ ​park​ ​after.​ ​You​ ​have  to​ ​eat​ ​if​ ​you​ ​want​ ​to​ ​grow​ ​big​ ​and​ ​strong.”    “But​ ​I​ ​don’t​ ​want​ ​to​ ​grow​ ​up​ ​big…​ ​then​ ​it​ ​will​ ​hurt​ ​right?”​ ​He​ ​looked​ ​up​ ​at​ ​her​ ​and​ ​his​ ​big​ ​blue​ ​eyes  momentarily​ ​illuminated​ ​from​ ​within.​ ​His​ ​face​ ​was​ ​so​ ​serious​ ​that​ ​she​ ​paused​ ​and​ ​was​ ​mute,​ ​trapped​ ​in​ ​his  gaze.
Elia​ ​was​ ​her​ ​treasure.​ ​She​ ​couldn’t​ ​imagine​ ​a​ ​world​ ​without​ ​him,​ ​even​ ​as​ ​she​ ​knew​ ​that​ ​someday​ ​she​ ​would​ ​not  be​ ​able​ ​to​ ​guide​ ​his​ ​steps​ ​as​ ​he​ ​passed​ ​through​ ​the​ ​vale.​ ​Elia​ ​was​ ​fae​ ​touched,​ ​and​ ​though​ ​he​ ​was​ ​simply​ ​a​ ​child  to​ ​her,​ ​as​ ​a​ ​young​ ​wolf,​ ​he​ ​represented​ ​a​ ​legacy​ ​that​ ​many​ ​had​ ​thought​ ​dead​ ​and​ ​lost.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​most​ ​certainly  lost​ ​but​ ​because​ ​of​ ​that,​ ​it​ ​meant​ ​that​ ​the​ ​name​ ​she​ ​had​ ​chosen​ ​as​ ​his​ ​birth​ ​name,​ ​Elia​ ​Darkstar,​ ​was​ ​more  correct​ ​than​ ​she​ ​could​ ​have​ ​ever​ ​known.​ ​All​ ​that​ ​she​ ​could​ ​do​ ​was​ ​try​ ​to​ ​protect​ ​him​ ​from​ ​the​ ​world​ ​so​ ​that​ ​he  would​ ​remain​ ​innocent.​ ​Many​ ​Darkstar​ ​wolves​ ​were​ ​lost​ ​to​ ​the​ ​fae​ ​realm,​ ​unable​ ​to​ ​bridge​ ​the​ ​gap​ ​between​ ​the humanity​ ​that​ ​had​ ​entered​ ​their​ ​hearts​ ​and​ ​the​ ​fae​ ​blood​ ​that​ ​coursed​ ​through​ ​their​ ​veins.​ ​They​ ​would​ ​go insane​ ​or​ ​simply​ ​wither​ ​away​ ​as​ ​their​ ​minds​ ​became​ ​attached​ ​to​ ​a​ ​place​ ​somewhere​ ​through​ ​the​ ​vale​ ​but​ ​their bodies​ ​remained.​ ​She​ ​did​ ​not​ ​want​ ​those​ ​sad​ ​fates​ ​to​ ​be​ ​what​ ​waited​ ​for​ ​her​ ​sweet​ ​boy;​ ​the​ ​only​ ​thing​ ​that remained​ ​of​ ​her​ ​mate.​ ​She​ ​had​ ​to​ ​close​ ​her​ ​eyes​ ​to​ ​him​ ​before​ ​she​ ​could​ ​speak.​ ​She​ ​knew​ ​that​ ​he​ ​would​ ​never​ ​tell  her​ ​everything​ ​that​ ​he​ ​knew,​ ​but​ ​Elia​ ​had​ ​already​ ​seen​ ​so​ ​many​ ​things​ ​that​ ​a​ ​child​ ​should​ ​never​ ​have​ ​to​ ​face  and​ ​remained​ ​so​ ​free​ ​and​ ​pure.​ ​How​ ​could​ ​she​ ​ever​ ​apologize​ ​to​ ​him.
“Then​ ​just​ ​strong.​ ​How​ ​does​ ​that​ ​sound​ ​since​ ​big​ ​is​ ​another​ ​evil.​ ​How​ ​did​ ​you​ ​get​ ​to​ ​be​ ​so​ ​clever?”​ ​She​ ​allowed​ ​a  smile​ ​to​ ​touch​ ​her​ ​lips​ ​even​ ​though​ ​she​ ​felt​ ​somber.
“I​ ​don’t​ ​know?”​ ​He​ ​said​ ​in​ ​a​ ​sing​ ​songy​ ​voice​ ​before​ ​he​ ​smiled​ ​a​ ​giant​ ​grin​ ​and​ ​skipped​ ​toward​ ​her​ ​across​ ​the  room,​ ​finally​ ​feeling​ ​more​ ​the​ ​age​ ​he​ ​looked.​ ​He​ ​pounced​ ​on​ ​her​ ​on​ ​the​ ​way​ ​past​ ​squeezing​ ​her​ ​in​ ​a​ ​big​ ​hug  before​ ​seating​ ​himself​ ​at​ ​the​ ​table​ ​and​ ​grabbing​ ​the​ ​other​ ​half​ ​of​ ​his​ ​sandwich.​ ​”Could​ ​we​ ​go​ ​to​ ​the​ ​woods  instead?”
“But​ ​I​ ​thought​ ​you​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​play​ ​with​ ​the​ ​other​ ​kids​ ​that​ ​you​ ​met…”
“Mmm…”​ ​the​ ​little​ ​noise​ ​had​ ​cut​ ​her​ ​off​ ​and​ ​she​ ​turned​ ​to​ ​see​ ​that​ ​Elia’s​ ​hair​ ​had​ ​slipped​ ​over​ ​one​ ​eye​ ​and​ ​he’d  frozen,​ ​staring​ ​off​ ​into​ ​space.​ ​”The​ ​woods​ ​feel​ ​more​ ​like​ ​home​ ​to​ ​me.​ ​I​ ​can​ ​hear​ ​them.”
“Elia!”​ ​It​ ​was​ ​too​ ​soon.​ ​She​ ​knew​ ​he​ ​shouldn’t​ ​be​ ​hearing​ ​them​ ​yet.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​so​ ​young.
He​ ​blinked​ ​up​ ​at​ ​her,​ ​seemingly​ ​startled​ ​by​ ​his​ ​own​ ​name.​ ​His​ ​hair​ ​still​ ​fell​ ​about​ ​his​ ​face​ ​concealingly​ ​and​ ​a gentle​ ​furrow​ ​marked​ ​his​ ​brow​ ​before​ ​his​ ​features​ ​relaxed.​ ​He​ ​cocked​ ​his​ ​head​ ​to​ ​the​ ​side​ ​as​ ​though​ ​he​ ​were  trying​ ​to​ ​listen​ ​to​ ​a​ ​faint​ ​noise​ ​before​ ​he​ ​drew​ ​a​ ​breath​ ​to​ ​speak.
“You​ ​don’t​ ​need​ ​to​ ​worry.​ ​I​ ​already​ ​know​ ​the​ ​path.​ ​It’s​ ​not​ ​like​ ​you​ ​fear.​ ​They​ ​will​ ​protect​ ​me​ ​and​ ​I​ ​will​ ​be​ ​your  Elia,​ ​even​ ​when​ ​I​ ​have​ ​walked​ ​in​ ​the​ ​other​ ​place​ ​and​ ​called​ ​my​ ​guardian.​ ​I​ ​know​ ​his​ ​voice.​ ​I​ ​just​ ​need​ ​to​ ​learn  his​ ​name.”
“Elia…”
“So​ ​what’s​ ​for​ ​dessert.​ ​I’ve​ ​finished​ ​my​ ​sandwich.”​ ​Once​ ​more​ ​he​ ​smiled​ ​like​ ​the​ ​little​ ​boy​ ​he​ ​was.​ ​She​ ​could​ ​see  his​ ​eyes​ ​sparkle,​ ​despite​ ​that​ ​his​ ​hair​ ​was​ ​in​ ​his​ ​face,​ ​even​ ​before​ ​he​ ​pushed​ ​it​ ​back​ ​only​ ​enough​ ​for​ ​her​ ​to​ ​see  both​ ​of​ ​them​ ​again.
Elia​ ​was​ ​not​ ​uncommon​ ​for​ ​what​ ​he​ ​was.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​a​ ​slim​ ​slight​ ​frame​ ​that​ ​still​ ​held​ ​the​ ​androgyny​ ​of​ ​youth.  Compared​ ​to​ ​a​ ​human​ ​he​ ​was​ ​markedly​ ​pale​ ​with​ ​soft​ ​freckles​ ​across​ ​the​ ​bridge​ ​of​ ​a​ ​nose​ ​that​ ​was​ ​almost​ ​too small​ ​for​ ​his​ ​face​ ​and​ ​definitely​ ​too​ ​small​ ​compared​ ​to​ ​his​ ​eyes.​ ​His​ ​hair​ ​was​ ​to​ ​his​ ​waist​ ​or​ ​just​ ​slightly​ ​past with​ ​a​ ​few​ ​areas​ ​that​ ​were​ ​shorter​ ​and​ ​framed​ ​his​ ​face​ ​in​ ​soft​ ​darkness.​ ​His​ ​smile​ ​came​ ​easily,​ ​unless​ ​he​ ​was lost,​ ​and​ ​he​ ​was​ ​spending​ ​more​ ​and​ ​more​ ​time​ ​lost,​ ​which​ ​frightened​ ​his​ ​mother​ ​to​ ​tears,​ ​no​ ​matter​ ​how​ ​he​ ​tried  to​ ​reassure​ ​her.​ ​His​ ​clothes,​ ​the​ ​ones​ ​that​ ​he​ ​picked​ ​for​ ​himself​ ​at​ ​least,​ ​were​ ​all​ ​in​ ​soft​ ​colors​ ​like​ ​the​ ​many layers​ ​of​ ​color​ ​one​ ​might​ ​find​ ​in​ ​a​ ​field​ ​or​ ​soft​ ​earth.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​like​ ​to​ ​go​ ​to​ ​the​ ​playground,​ ​especially​ ​not  lately.​ ​​ Everyone​ ​there​ ​thought​ ​he​ ​was​ ​a​ ​girl.​ ​Even​ ​the​ ​other​ ​kids​ ​were​ ​beyond​ ​correcting,​ ​and​ ​though​ ​he​ ​acted as​ ​though​ ​it​ ​really​ ​didn’t​ ​matter,​ ​some​ ​part​ ​of​ ​him​ ​still​ ​stung.​
​He​ ​sighed.​ ​Elia​ ​knew​ ​why​ ​his​ ​mom​ ​was​ ​worried  and​ ​why​ ​she​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​go​ ​to​ ​the​ ​park…​ ​she​ ​had​ ​seen​ ​how​ ​lost​ ​he​ ​was​ ​at​ ​home​ ​within​ ​four​ ​walls.​ ​What​ ​if​ ​it​ ​was worse?​ ​What​ ​if​ ​his​ ​soul​ ​was​ ​called​ ​away?​ ​Elia​ ​had​ ​never​ ​thought​ ​that​ ​might​ ​happen.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​know​ ​what​ ​had happened​ ​to​ ​other​ ​wolves​ ​that​ ​had​ ​been​ ​like​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​know​ ​his​ ​father.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​know​ ​any​ ​of​ ​them​ ​at​ ​all,  only​ ​her.​ ​Perhaps​ ​that​ ​was​ ​partly​ ​to​ ​blame​ ​for​ ​his​ ​fearlessness,​ ​but​ ​what​ ​would​ ​the​ ​other​ ​wolves​ ​do​ ​with​ ​a​ ​fully  functional​ ​Darkstar?​ ​They​ ​certainly​ ​wouldn’t​ ​embrace​ ​him​ ​as​ ​part​ ​of​ ​the​ ​pack.​ ​They​ ​would​ ​look​ ​upon​ ​him with​ ​pity​ ​and​ ​fear.​ ​In​ ​europe​ ​there​ ​might​ ​be​ ​others,​ ​but​ ​she​ ​couldn’t​ ​risk​ ​the​ ​hunters.​ ​Even​ ​here,​ ​there​ ​was​ ​a  chance​ ​that​ ​the​ ​hunters​ ​could​ ​find​ ​them.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​slim,​ ​but​ ​between​ ​the​ ​potential​ ​reaction​ ​of​ ​the​ ​other​ ​wolves and​ ​the​ ​danger​ ​that​ ​could,​ ​even​ ​now,​ ​be​ ​just​ ​outside​ ​their​ ​door,​ ​Sabyn​ ​needed​ ​to​ ​keep​ ​her​ ​little​ ​boy​ ​safe.
“Mom?”
She​ ​hadn’t​ ​realized​ ​that​ ​she​ ​had​ ​stopped​ ​moving​ ​until​ ​he​ ​had​ ​called​ ​to​ ​her.​ ​Perhaps​ ​going​ ​out​ ​would​ ​be​ ​a​ ​good distraction.​ ​She​ ​was​ ​becoming​ ​a​ ​little​ ​bit​ ​more​ ​lost​ ​too.​ ​She​ ​sighed​ ​heavily​ ​as​ ​she​ ​reached​ ​for​ ​his​ ​dish.
“Go​ ​get​ ​your​ ​shoes​ ​on.​ ​We’ll​ ​walk​ ​today.”
“OK.”​ ​He​ ​skipped​ ​off​ ​in​ ​the​ ​direction​ ​of​ ​his​ ​room.

*​ ​*​ ​*

“Sir.​ ​The​ ​coroner​ ​is​ ​here.”
He​ ​took​ ​a​ ​heavy​ ​breath​ ​through​ ​the​ ​handkerchief​ ​he​ ​clasped​ ​to​ ​his​ ​face.​ ​His​ ​stomach​ ​had always​ ​been​ ​too​ ​weak​ ​for​ ​this​ ​job​ ​but​ ​he​ ​was​ ​far​ ​too​ ​good​ ​at​ ​it​ ​to​ ​walk​ ​away.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​the​ ​lead detective​ ​on​ ​this​ ​case,​ ​though​ ​he​ ​was​ ​surprised​ ​that​ ​no​ ​one​ ​else​ ​had​ ​wanted​ ​it.​ ​Perhaps​ ​it​ ​was the​ ​hour.​ ​This​ ​one,​ ​especially​ ​now,​ ​would​ ​require​ ​extra​ ​care.​ ​One​ ​of​ ​the​ ​medics​ ​bumped​ ​past him.​ ​How​ ​was​ ​this​ ​child​ ​even​ ​still​ ​alive?​ ​When​ ​he​ ​first​ ​saw​ ​the​ ​small​ ​form​ ​laid​ ​flat​ ​upon​ ​the floor​ ​he​ ​hadn’t​ ​thought​ ​that​ ​it​ ​was​ ​a​ ​real​ ​person.​ ​Great​ ​blue​ ​eyes​ ​stared​ ​at​ ​the​ ​ceiling​ ​above them,​ ​unblinking.​ ​Skin​ ​that​ ​was​ ​far​ ​too​ ​pale​ ​to​ ​be​ ​healthy​ ​was​ ​spattered​ ​in​ ​blood​ ​and​ ​gore.​ ​Dark hair​ ​spread​ ​out​ ​in​ ​a​ ​limp​ ​halo​ ​around​ ​the​ ​lifeless​ ​form.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​asked​ ​if​ ​there​ ​was​ ​any​ ​chance that​ ​she​ ​would​ ​be​ ​alright.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​sure​ ​it​ ​had​ ​been​ ​a​ ​rape​ ​case.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​sure​ ​this​ ​child​ ​must​ ​be broken,​ ​but​ ​the​ ​man​ ​who​ ​turned​ ​to​ ​him​ ​with​ ​tears​ ​in​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​shook​ ​his​ ​head​ ​and​ ​immediately he​ ​had​ ​thought​ ​the​ ​worst.​ ​The​ ​child​ ​was​ ​beyond​ ​hope.​ ​The​ ​words​ ​that​ ​left​ ​the​ ​man’s​ ​lips​ ​were not​ ​what​ ​the​ ​detective​ ​was​ ​expecting:​ ​that​ ​this​ ​was​ ​not​ ​a​ ​little​ ​girl,​ ​but​ ​a​ ​boy.​ ​Someone​ ​had mutilated​ ​this​ ​beautiful​ ​little​ ​boy.​ ​His​ ​voice​ ​had​ ​fallen​ ​to​ ​a​ ​harsh​ ​whisper​ ​when​ ​he​ ​told​ ​them​ ​to cover​ ​him​ ​up​ ​and​ ​that​ ​was​ ​what​ ​had​ ​forced​ ​him​ ​to​ ​take​ ​out​ ​his​ ​handkerchief.​ ​Who​ ​would​ ​do that​ ​to​ ​a​ ​child?​ ​What​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​monster​ ​would​ ​do​ ​that?
Now​ ​he​ ​turned​ ​away​ ​from​ ​those​ ​unblinking​ ​eyes.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​been​ ​told​ ​that​ ​the​ ​boy​ ​would​ ​live.​ ​He wasn’t​ ​sure​ ​if​ ​he​ ​should​ ​be​ ​happy​ ​or​ ​weep.​ ​What​ ​would​ ​become​ ​of​ ​a​ ​child​ ​that​ ​had​ ​been mutilated​ ​like​ ​that?​ ​There​ ​wasn’t​ ​even​ ​anyone​ ​to​ ​question.​ ​There​ ​wasn’t​ ​anyone​ ​who​ ​would answer​ ​for​ ​the​ ​crimes​ ​against​ ​the​ ​small​ ​form​ ​that​ ​lay​ ​rigidly​ ​on​ ​the​ ​hard​ ​floor.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​a nameless​ ​child,​ ​lost​ ​and​ ​broken,​ ​cast​ ​aside,​ ​or​ ​perhaps​ ​he​ ​had​ ​been​ ​sought​ ​after​ ​because​ ​of some​ ​base​ ​desire​ ​in​ ​one​ ​of​ ​those​ ​who​ ​lay​ ​with​ ​him​ ​in​ ​the​ ​room.​ ​One​ ​of​ ​those​ ​was​ ​missing​ ​half of​ ​her​ ​face,​ ​presumably​ ​from​ ​being​ ​shot​ ​by​ ​a​ ​rifle​ ​that​ ​lay​ ​across​ ​the​ ​room,​ ​while​ ​the​ ​other​ ​was so​ ​mutilated​ ​it​ ​was​ ​barely​ ​recognizable​ ​as​ ​having​ ​been​ ​human.
The​ ​more​ ​he​ ​had​ ​looked​ ​about​ ​the​ ​scene​ ​the​ ​more​ ​confused​ ​he​ ​became.​ ​There​ ​were​ ​paw prints,​ ​so​ ​many​ ​paw​ ​prints​ ​in​ ​blood​ ​smeared​ ​across​ ​the​ ​floor,​ ​the​ ​walls,​ ​the​ ​windows,​ ​any surface​ ​that​ ​paws​ ​could​ ​reach,​ ​and​ ​two​ ​sets.​ ​One​ ​of​ ​them​ ​was​ ​sizable,​ ​a​ ​big​ ​dog​ ​like​ ​a​ ​german shepherd​ ​or​ ​a​ ​malamute,​ ​perhaps​ ​a​ ​wolf​ ​if​ ​it​ ​was​ ​wild,​ ​while​ ​the​ ​other​ ​set​ ​was​ ​only​ ​around​ ​the boy’s​ ​body,​ ​smaller​ ​and​ ​softer,​ ​as​ ​though​ ​it​ ​had​ ​been​ ​a​ ​lighter,​ ​smaller​ ​animal​ ​that​ ​had​ ​made them,​ ​even​ ​though​ ​the​ ​paw​ ​print​ ​was​ ​nearly​ ​identical​ ​to​ ​the​ ​larger​ ​ones.​ ​There​ ​was​ ​too​ ​much blood​ ​in​ ​this​ ​small​ ​room,​ ​too​ ​much​ ​to​ ​have​ ​come​ ​from​ ​only​ ​the​ ​two​ ​corpses​ ​and​ ​the​ ​boy​ ​who lay​ ​upon​ ​the​ ​floor.​ ​What​ ​had​ ​happened​ ​here?

*​ ​*​ ​*

He​ ​made​ ​sure​ ​he​ ​was​ ​out​ ​of​ ​his​ ​mother’s​ ​sight​ ​before​ ​he​ ​sat​ ​down​ ​in​ ​the​ ​grass​ ​and​ ​closed​ ​his​ ​eyes.​ ​The  sun​ ​felt​ ​good.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​well​ ​enough​ ​away​ ​from​ ​the​ ​other​ ​kids​ ​to​ ​not​ ​be​ ​bothered​ ​unless​ ​they​ ​went​ ​to​ ​some  trouble.​ ​There​ ​were​ ​too​ ​many​ ​people​ ​here.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​listening​ ​anyway.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​hear​ ​them.​ ​Their  voices​ ​were​ ​soothing​ ​and​ ​quieted​ ​his​ ​mind.​ ​They​ ​were​ ​a​ ​comfort.​ ​He​ ​could​ ​barely​ ​hear​ ​their​ ​whispers  from​ ​the​ ​treeline​ ​just​ ​before​ ​he​ ​was​ ​unceremoniously​ ​hit​ ​with​ ​something,​ ​hard.​ ​He​ ​blinked​ ​and​ ​turned  in​ ​the​ ​direction​ ​he​ ​thought​ ​it​ ​must​ ​have​ ​come​ ​from​ ​to​ ​find​ ​a​ ​stocky​ ​ruddy​ ​cheeked​ ​child​ ​sneering​ ​back​ ​at  him.
“Throw​ ​it​ ​back,​ ​freak.”
Elia​ ​sighed​ ​heavily​ ​and​ ​looked​ ​to​ ​where​ ​the​ ​ball​ ​had​ ​rolled,​ ​just​ ​beyond​ ​him.​ ​This​ ​is​ ​what​ ​constituted​ ​for  playing​ ​with​ ​his​ ​friends,​ ​fetching​ ​a​ ​ball​ ​and​ ​throwing​ ​it​ ​back​ ​like​ ​a​ ​good​ ​little​ ​dog.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​want​ ​to​ ​do  this​ ​today.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​sit​ ​in​ ​the​ ​grass​ ​and​ ​be​ ​left​ ​alone.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​walk​ ​through​ ​the​ ​woods.​ ​He wanted​ ​to​ ​listen​ ​to​ ​all​ ​the​ ​whispered​ ​voices​ ​of​ ​the​ ​trees​ ​until​ ​they​ ​gave​ ​way​ ​to​ ​the​ ​voices​ ​of​ ​those​ ​who lay​ ​beyond​ ​them,​ ​until​ ​the​ ​whispers​ ​became​ ​one​ ​singular​ ​male​ ​voice​ ​that​ ​he​ ​recognized​ ​and​ ​found​ ​to​ ​be of​ ​greater​ ​comfort​ ​than​ ​even​ ​his​ ​mother’s​ ​arms.​
​His​ ​body​ ​went​ ​through​ ​the​ ​motions​ ​as​ ​his​ ​expression went​ ​blank.​ ​He​ ​grabbed​ ​the​ ​ball​ ​and​ ​gently​ ​tossed​ ​it​ ​back​ ​to​ ​the​ ​boy​ ​who​ ​waited​ ​with​ ​a​ ​look​ ​of  disapproval.
“Heh,​ ​not​ ​a​ ​bad​ ​toss​ ​for​ ​a​ ​girl.”​ ​The​ ​boy​ ​threw​ ​it​ ​back​ ​and​ ​was​ ​surprised​ ​when​ ​Elia​ ​caught​ ​it​ ​easily. “Come​ ​on,​ ​let’s​ ​play.”
He​ ​wandered​ ​after,​ ​knowing​ ​that​ ​this​ ​would​ ​end​ ​badly.​ ​It​ ​always​ ​did.​ ​Whether​ ​it​ ​was​ ​because​ ​he​ ​was  better​ ​than​ ​the​ ​others​ ​his​ ​age​ ​or​ ​that​ ​they​ ​discovered​ ​he​ ​was​ ​not​ ​the​ ​girl​ ​they​ ​thought​ ​he​ ​was,​ ​it​ ​always  ended​ ​up​ ​going​ ​wrong.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​understand​ ​why​ ​there​ ​always​ ​seemed​ ​to​ ​be​ ​different​ ​kids​ ​and​ ​none​ ​of  them​ ​remembered.​ ​It​ ​would​ ​be​ ​easier​ ​if​ ​they​ ​just​ ​left​ ​him​ ​alone.

*​ ​*​ ​*

The​ ​lights​ ​passed​ ​overhead​ ​in​ ​a​ ​dull​ ​rhythm​ ​just​ ​slightly​ ​off​ ​from​ ​the​ ​music​ ​that​ ​played​ ​in​ ​the car.​ ​He​ ​would​ ​have​ ​nightmares.​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​that​ ​by​ ​the​ ​time​ ​this​ ​was​ ​all​ ​sorted​ ​out​ ​he​ ​would spend​ ​months​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​banish​ ​the​ ​image​ ​of​ ​that​ ​boy​ ​from​ ​his​ ​mind.​ ​Even​ ​now​ ​those​ ​eyes haunted​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​that​ ​child​ ​was​ ​in​ ​the​ ​ambulance​ ​before​ ​him,​ ​safely​ ​buckled​ ​into​ ​place​ ​on a​ ​stretcher.​ ​As​ ​if​ ​he​ ​would​ ​try​ ​to​ ​move.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​catatonic​ ​and​ ​even​ ​now​ ​there​ ​was​ ​no​ ​certainty he​ ​would​ ​ever​ ​come​ ​back​ ​from​ ​whatever​ ​abyss​ ​he​ ​had​ ​mentally​ ​plummeted​ ​over.​ ​The​ ​space around​ ​him​ ​had​ ​been​ ​taped,​ ​cataloged,​ ​and​ ​collected.​
​It​ ​wasn’t going to be​ ​easy.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​going​ ​to​ ​have​ ​to pour​ ​over​ ​pictures​ ​of​ ​that​ ​horror​ ​if​ ​he​ ​had​ ​any​ ​hope​ ​of​ ​muddling​ ​through.​ ​What​ ​if​ ​the​ ​child never​ ​recovered?​ ​He​ ​had​ ​so​ ​many​ ​questions.​ ​What​ ​had​ ​those​ ​great​ ​blue​ ​eyes​ ​seen?​ ​Would​ ​he even​ ​remember?​ ​What​ ​was​ ​mercy​ ​in​ ​a​ ​case​ ​like​ ​this?

*​ ​*​ ​*

Elia​ ​gingerly​ ​held​ ​his​ ​face​ ​as​ ​he​ ​walked​ ​away.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​go​ ​to​ ​the​ ​woods.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​want​ ​to​ ​be​ ​here  anymore.​ ​He​ ​pulled​ ​his​ ​hand​ ​away​ ​to​ ​reveal​ ​blood​ ​as​ ​he​ ​slunk​ ​in​ ​low​ ​beneath​ ​one​ ​of​ ​the​ ​steel​ ​plated  platforms​ ​and​ ​took​ ​a​ ​heavy​ ​breath.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​been​ ​good.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​played​ ​along.​ ​Why​ ​did​ ​it​ ​always​ ​end​ ​this  way?​ ​Why​ ​couldn’t​ ​he​ ​just​ ​go​ ​to​ ​where​ ​the​ ​pack​ ​was?​ ​Surely​ ​they​ ​would​ ​be​ ​more​ ​kind.​ ​His​ ​nose​ ​ached.  They​ ​had​ ​pushed​ ​him​ ​down​ ​and​ ​pulled​ ​his​ ​hair​ ​before​ ​slamming​ ​his​ ​face​ ​into​ ​the​ ​ground​ ​hard​ ​enough​ ​to  make​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​water.​ ​Was​ ​it​ ​because​ ​he​ ​was​ ​faster​ ​than​ ​they​ ​were?​ ​Was​ ​it​ ​because​ ​he​ ​could​ ​throw​ ​a  little​ ​further?​ ​Why​ ​couldn’t​ ​he​ ​go​ ​to​ ​a​ ​place​ ​where​ ​he​ ​would​ ​be​ ​accepted​ ​for​ ​what​ ​he​ ​was?​ ​Why​ ​was  the​ ​first​ ​response​ ​always​ ​to​ ​cause​ ​harm​ ​when​ ​they​ ​did​ ​not​ ​understand​ ​why​ ​he​ ​was​ ​different?
He​ ​just​ ​had​ ​to​ ​stay​ ​out​ ​of​ ​sight​ ​long​ ​enough​ ​to​ ​heal.​ ​He​ ​could​ ​already​ ​feel​ ​his​ ​nose​ ​mending.​ ​The​ ​blood  had​ ​stopped.​ ​He​ ​would​ ​only​ ​be​ ​dirty.​ ​So​ ​long​ ​as​ ​he​ ​didn’t​ ​look​ ​like​ ​he​ ​had​ ​been​ ​bleeding.​ ​He​ ​wiped​ ​his  hands​ ​on​ ​the​ ​bark​ ​chips​ ​and​ ​sniffed.​ ​He​ ​could​ ​say​ ​that​ ​he​ ​fell.​ ​How​ ​could​ ​she​ ​not​ ​see​ ​that​ ​he​ ​was​ ​only  clumsy​ ​when​ ​he​ ​was​ ​at​ ​the​ ​playground​ ​with​ ​the​ ​kids​ ​that​ ​she​ ​wished​ ​were​ ​his​ ​friends?​ ​He​ ​curled​ ​up​ ​in  a​ ​little​ ​ball​ ​and​ ​closed​ ​his​ ​eyes.​ ​He​ ​wished​ ​that​ ​the​ ​voices​ ​would​ ​come.​ ​He​ ​wished​ ​he​ ​could​ ​be​ ​out​ ​in​ ​the  sun​ ​instead​ ​of​ ​hiding​ ​beneath​ ​the​ ​steel​ ​structure​ ​of​ ​the​ ​playscape,​ ​hoping​ ​not​ ​to​ ​be​ ​found.​ ​He​ ​wished​ ​he  could​ ​change​ ​into​ ​his​ ​wolfen​ ​form​ ​and​ ​run​ ​away​ ​but​ ​he​ ​was​ ​too​ ​young.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​too​ ​young​ ​to​ ​hear​ ​the  voices​ ​but​ ​he​ ​did​ ​anyway.​ ​Both​ ​were​ ​wrong.​ ​Both​ ​were​ ​bad.​ ​Elia​ ​whimpered​ ​in​ ​the​ ​darkness.​ ​Why​ ​was  he​ ​bad​ ​even​ ​when​ ​he​ ​tried​ ​so​ ​hard​ ​to​ ​be​ ​good?

*​ ​*​ ​*

He​ ​should​ ​not​ ​be​ ​standing​ ​in​ ​this​ ​room.​ ​He​ ​should​ ​be​ ​at​ ​the​ ​station.​ ​He​ ​should​ ​be​ ​getting​ ​to​ ​the bottom​ ​of​ ​this​ ​but​ ​he​ ​couldn’t​ ​seem​ ​to​ ​abandon​ ​the​ ​form​ ​before​ ​him,​ ​who​ ​lay​ ​nearly​ ​lifeless,​ ​in the​ ​hospital​ ​bed.
“What​ ​happened​ ​to​ ​you?​ ​I​ ​wish​ ​you​ ​could​ ​tell​ ​me…”
There​ ​was​ ​no​ ​response​ ​from​ ​the​ ​one​ ​in​ ​the​ ​bed.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​so​ ​small,​ ​so​ ​fragile.​ ​His​ ​eyes​ ​had​ ​been closed,​ ​some​ ​merciful​ ​nurse​ ​had​ ​seen​ ​to​ ​that,​ ​but​ ​it​ ​didn’t​ ​matter.​ ​The​ ​man​ ​who​ ​stood​ ​in​ ​the room​ ​thinking​ ​that​ ​he​ ​should​ ​leave​ ​remembered​ ​how​ ​they​ ​looked​ ​when​ ​they​ ​were​ ​open.​ ​No one​ ​had​ ​reported​ ​a​ ​missing​ ​child.​ ​It​ ​had​ ​been​ ​two​ ​days​ ​since​ ​those​ ​eyes​ ​had​ ​been​ ​closed​ ​and​ ​he had​ ​been​ ​settled​ ​into​ ​the​ ​hospital​ ​bed​ ​but​ ​no​ ​one​ ​had​ ​been​ ​missing​ ​him.​ ​The​ ​woman​ ​hadn’t had​ ​any​ ​identification​ ​on​ ​her.​ ​The​ ​information​ ​that​ ​they​ ​had​ ​found​ ​had​ ​linked​ ​her​ ​to​ ​the​ ​name of​ ​a​ ​child​ ​who​ ​had​ ​died​ ​at​ ​birth,​ ​long​ ​ago.​ ​Soon​ ​the​ ​tests​ ​would​ ​return​ ​which​ ​would​ ​prove​ ​that the​ ​detective’s​ ​worst​ ​fears​ ​were​ ​confirmed.​ ​What​ ​if​ ​that​ ​woman​ ​had​ ​been​ ​this​ ​boy’s​ ​mother? Was​ ​there​ ​really​ ​no​ ​one​ ​who​ ​could​ ​say​ ​this​ ​child’s​ ​name​ ​and​ ​call​ ​his​ ​soul​ ​home​ ​to​ ​the​ ​frail​ ​body that​ ​barely​ ​had​ ​enough​ ​substance​ ​to​ ​rumple​ ​the​ ​sheets?​ ​The​ ​detective​ ​sighed​ ​heavily​ ​as​ ​he smoothed​ ​his​ ​hand​ ​through​ ​hair​ ​that​ ​was​ ​a​ ​little​ ​bit​ ​greasy​ ​from​ ​lack​ ​of​ ​a​ ​shower.​ ​He​ ​should​ ​go home​ ​and​ ​take​ ​one​ ​of​ ​those​ ​or​ ​eat,​ ​maybe​ ​sleep​ ​if​ ​he​ ​could.
How​ ​was​ ​he​ ​going​ ​to​ ​be​ ​able​ ​to​ ​look​ ​into​ ​those​ ​big​ ​blue​ ​eyes​ ​and​ ​say​ ​that​ ​he​ ​had​ ​found​ ​a​ ​way to​ ​offer​ ​justice​ ​for​ ​what​ ​had​ ​been​ ​done.​ ​Even​ ​when​ ​the​ ​body​ ​healed,​ ​would​ ​this​ ​one’s​ ​mind ever​ ​be​ ​able​ ​to​ ​understand​ ​that​ ​he​ ​had​ ​tried,​ ​that​ ​he​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​give​ ​closure​ ​so​ ​that​ ​this​ ​boy could​ ​smile.​ ​He​ ​almost​ ​looked​ ​peaceful,​ ​almost.​ ​If​ ​he​ ​had​ ​been​ ​older,​ ​the​ ​soft​ ​furrow​ ​of​ ​distress that​ ​marked​ ​his​ ​brow​ ​would​ ​have​ ​seemed​ ​more​ ​commonplace,​ ​but​ ​in​ ​someone​ ​so​ ​young,​ ​it made​ ​the​ ​child​ ​before​ ​him​ ​feel​ ​even​ ​more​ ​tragic.​ ​What​ ​had​ ​he​ ​been​ ​like​ ​before?​ ​Would​ ​he​ ​ever be​ ​that​ ​boy​ ​again?
The​ ​detective​ ​turned​ ​as​ ​he​ ​felt​ ​a​ ​presence​ ​behind​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​thought​ ​he​ ​saw​ ​something​ ​dark​ ​out of​ ​the​ ​corner​ ​of​ ​his​ ​eye,​ ​as​ ​though​ ​someone​ ​had​ ​just​ ​left​ ​the​ ​room.​ ​Had​ ​someone​ ​been standing​ ​behind​ ​him?​ ​He​ ​stepped​ ​to​ ​the​ ​door​ ​and​ ​slowly​ ​opened​ ​it.​ ​It​ ​hadn’t​ ​been​ ​latched.​ ​He thought​ ​he​ ​remembered​ ​pulling​ ​it​ ​so​ ​that​ ​it​ ​latched​ ​behind​ ​him​ ​when​ ​he​ ​had​ ​arrived.​ ​Though his​ ​eyes​ ​found​ ​no​ ​one​ ​in​ ​the​ ​hall,​ ​he​ ​glanced​ ​back​ ​and​ ​forth​ ​twice​ ​to​ ​be​ ​sure,​ ​before​ ​he​ ​realized he​ ​must​ ​be​ ​mistaken.​ ​Perhaps​ ​it​ ​was​ ​only​ ​his​ ​exhaustion.​ ​He​ ​should​ ​leave.
He​ ​turned​ ​one​ ​last​ ​time​ ​to​ ​look​ ​upon​ ​the​ ​form​ ​in​ ​the​ ​bed.​ ​His​ ​eyes​ ​widened​ ​as​ ​he​ ​found​ ​they weren’t​ ​alone.​ ​Pale​ ​fingers​ ​gently​ ​smoothed​ ​dark​ ​hair​ ​from​ ​a​ ​troubled​ ​brow.​ ​Something​ ​was wrong​ ​with​ ​the​ ​man’s​ ​eyes​ ​as​ ​they​ ​gazed​ ​down​ ​upon​ ​the​ ​boy​ ​in​ ​the​ ​bed.​ ​Something​ ​was​ ​wrong with​ ​the​ ​far​ ​side​ ​of​ ​his​ ​face…​ ​his​ ​clothes​ ​which​ ​seemed​ ​to​ ​hang​ ​from​ ​him​ ​as​ ​though​ ​they​ ​were gently​ ​suspended​ ​in​ ​water​ ​and​ ​made​ ​of​ ​something​ ​only​ ​slightly​ ​heavier​ ​than​ ​smoke.​ ​Something was​ ​so​ ​very​ ​wrong​ ​with​ ​this​ ​person​ ​despite​ ​that​ ​he​ ​bore​ ​the​ ​same​ ​foreign​ ​beauty​ ​that​ ​the​ ​boy in​ ​the​ ​bed​ ​had.​ ​The​ ​detective​ ​was​ ​gripped​ ​with​ ​the​ ​wish​ ​to​ ​run​ ​just​ ​as​ ​quickly​ ​as​ ​he​ ​was​ ​the rush​ ​to​ ​step​ ​closer,​ ​so​ ​he​ ​chose​ ​to​ ​remain​ ​stone​ ​still​ ​instead​ ​of​ ​doing​ ​either.​ ​He​ ​saw​ ​the​ ​boy take​ ​a​ ​deep​ ​breath​ ​and​ ​finally​ ​the​ ​furrow​ ​relaxed​ ​so​ ​that​ ​he​ ​was​ ​only​ ​young​ ​again.​ ​The​ ​pale hand​ ​slowly​ ​withdrew​ ​and​ ​the​ ​dark​ ​figure​ ​straightened.​ ​Eyes​ ​that​ ​glowed​ ​like​ ​arctic​ ​ice​ ​finally rose​ ​and​ ​met​ ​those​ ​of​ ​the​ ​detective​ ​who​ ​was​ ​just​ ​beginning​ ​to​ ​realize​ ​he​ ​barred​ ​the​ ​only​ ​exit. Sumptuous​ ​lips​ ​pushed​ ​together​ ​as​ ​the​ ​creature​ ​squared​ ​off,​ ​shifting​ ​the​ ​most​ ​infinitesimal amount.
“Elia…”​ ​the​ ​creature​ ​spoke​ ​in​ ​a​ ​whisper​ ​that​ ​sounded​ ​like​ ​shifting​ ​leaves​ ​on​ ​a​ ​forest​ ​floor.​ ​His lips​ ​appeared​ ​to​ ​move​ ​purposefully​ ​as​ ​though​ ​he​ ​were​ ​unused​ ​to​ ​pronouncing​ ​the​ ​word,​ ​the name.​ ​He​ ​looked​ ​to​ ​the​ ​boy​ ​in​ ​the​ ​bed​ ​and​ ​let​ ​his​ ​hand​ ​stray​ ​back​ ​toward​ ​him,​ ​indicating​ ​the child​ ​who​ ​finally​ ​seemed​ ​to​ ​be​ ​peacefully​ ​sleeping.
“Elia,​ ​is​ ​that​ ​his​ ​name?”​ ​Could​ ​it​ ​be​ ​true?​ ​All​ ​the​ ​detective​ ​received​ ​was​ ​a​ ​gentle​ ​nod​ ​before​ ​the figure​ ​dissolved​ ​into​ ​shadowed​ ​wisps​ ​of​ ​smoke.
“Elia.”​ ​The​ ​detective​ ​said​ ​it​ ​again​ ​as​ ​he​ ​blinked​ ​in​ ​surprise​ ​before​ ​he​ ​stepped​ ​forward,​ ​more relieved​ ​to​ ​have​ ​some​ ​clue​ ​about​ ​the​ ​child​ ​than​ ​immediately​ ​worried​ ​about​ ​what​ ​just happened.​ ​”Elia,​ ​Elia​ ​come​ ​back.​ ​I​ ​want​ ​to​ ​talk​ ​to​ ​you.​ ​Elia​ ​I​ ​can’t​ ​fix​ ​this​ ​without​ ​you.​ ​I​ ​want​ ​you to​ ​heal.​ ​I​ ​want​ ​you​ ​to​ ​be​ ​well.​ ​Please​ ​Elia,​ ​let​ ​me​ ​make​ ​this​ ​right.”
He​ ​would​ ​be​ ​the​ ​one​ ​to​ ​say​ ​that​ ​name​ ​if​ ​no​ ​one​ ​else​ ​would.​ ​He​ ​would​ ​find​ ​a​ ​way​ ​to​ ​make​ ​this better.

*​ ​*​ ​*

“Elia?​ ​Elia!​ ​Where​ ​are​ ​you​ ​darling?​ ​It’s​ ​time​ ​to​ ​go.”​ ​Maybe​ ​he​ ​hadn’t​ ​heard​ ​her​ ​at​ ​first.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​by​ ​no  means​ ​late,​ ​but​ ​if​ ​they​ ​didn’t​ ​go​ ​now,​ ​dinner​ ​would​ ​be.​ ​Why​ ​wasn’t​ ​he​ ​responding?​ ​Had​ ​something  happened?
“Excuse​ ​me,​ ​but​ ​are​ ​you​ ​this​ ​one’s​ ​mom?”
She​ ​wheeled​ ​around​ ​to​ ​find​ ​a​ ​blonde​​ ​woman​ ​with​ ​a​ ​pleasant​ ​expression​ ​and​ ​a​ ​hand​ ​on​ ​each​ ​shoulder​ ​of  the​ ​very​ ​thing​ ​she​ ​was​ ​searching​ ​for.​ ​He​ ​wasn’t​ ​meeting​ ​her​ ​gaze.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​dirty,​ ​as​ ​though​ ​he​ ​had​ ​been rolling​ ​on​ ​the​ ​bark​ ​and​ ​earth​ ​and​ ​she​ ​instantly​ ​scowled​ ​at​ ​the​ ​look​ ​of​ ​distress​ ​that​ ​crossed​ ​his​ ​features. Then​ ​he​ ​looked​ ​up​ ​and​ ​a​ ​smile​ ​bloomed​ ​upon​ ​his​ ​face.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​as​ ​though​ ​nothing​ ​but​ ​the​ ​dirt​ ​had  happened,​ ​even​ ​though​ ​she​ ​had​ ​been​ ​sure​ ​just​ ​moments​ ​before​ ​that​ ​something​ ​was​ ​wrong.
“Mommy!​ ​Is​ ​it​ ​time​ ​to​ ​go​ ​home?”​ ​Elia​ ​stepped​ ​away​ ​from​ ​the​ ​woman​ ​who​ ​had​ ​guided​ ​him​ ​to​ ​her​ ​and  into​ ​a​ ​hug​ ​that​ ​she​ ​returned.
“Thank​ ​you.”​ ​Sabyn​ ​offered​ ​a​ ​half​ ​smile​ ​to​ ​the​ ​woman​ ​who​ ​had​ ​returned​ ​him​ ​to​ ​her.
“It’s​ ​no​ ​trouble.​ ​My​ ​girls​ ​are​ ​pretty​ ​rough​ ​and​ ​tumble​ ​too​ ​so​ ​don’t​ ​be​ ​too​​ ​hard​ ​on​ ​her.​ ​They​ ​play​ ​hard.”
“Yes,​ ​and​ ​apparently​ ​boys​ ​worse​ ​than​ ​girls.”​ ​She​ ​chuckled​ ​softly​ ​until​ ​she​ ​felt​ ​the​ ​slight​ ​flinch​ ​from​ ​the  child​ ​in​ ​her​ ​arms​ ​and​ ​instinctively​ ​moved​ ​to​ ​smooth​ ​his​ ​hair​ ​the​ ​way​ ​she​ ​always​ ​did​ ​when​ ​she​ ​was  comforting​ ​him.​ ​”He’ll​ ​be​ ​fine​ ​after​ ​a​ ​bath​ ​and​ ​some​ ​food.”
“He…​ ​I’m​ ​so​ ​sorry.​ ​I​ ​thought…​ ​because​ ​of​ ​the​ ​long​ ​hair​ ​and…​ ​he…”​ ​The​ ​woman​ ​was​ ​nearly​ ​stuttering​ ​and  was​ ​flushed​ ​when​ ​Sabyn​ ​looked​ ​up.​ ​She​ ​swallowed​ ​hard​ ​before​ ​she​ ​continued.​ ​”He’s​ ​just​ ​such​ ​a​ ​beautiful  child.”
“It’s​ ​alright.​ ​Really.​ ​This​ ​happens​ ​all​ ​the​ ​time.”

*​ ​*​ ​*

“Sir,​ ​might​ ​I​ ​have​ ​a​ ​word​ ​with​ ​you​ ​before​ ​you​ ​go.”​ ​The​ ​doctor​ ​pushed​ ​his​ ​glasses​ ​up​ ​and​ ​cleared his​ ​throat​ ​before​ ​letting​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​rise​ ​to​ ​meet​ ​the​ ​steely​ ​gaze​ ​of​ ​the​ ​detective.
“Have​ ​you​ ​found​ ​something​ ​new?”​ ​The​ ​detective’s​ ​tone​ ​was​ ​far​ ​lighter​ ​than​ ​he​ ​meant​ ​for​ ​it​ ​to be.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​not​ ​looking​ ​forward​ ​to​ ​his​ ​return​ ​to​ ​the​ ​office.​ ​At​ ​least​ ​here​ ​he​ ​felt​ ​like​ ​he​ ​was​ ​doing something​ ​useful.​ ​He​ ​could​ ​justify​ ​his​ ​time​ ​spent​ ​by​ ​telling​ ​himself​ ​it​ ​was​ ​good​ ​for​ ​the​ ​boy.​ ​No one​ ​else​ ​even​ ​called​ ​him​ ​by​ ​name.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​close​ ​to​ ​finding​ ​out​ ​once​ ​and​ ​for​ ​all​ ​what​ ​that​ ​was.
“He’s​ ​going​ ​to​ ​be​ ​moved​ ​and​ ​I​ ​wanted​ ​you​ ​to​ ​be​ ​the​ ​first​ ​to​ ​know.​ ​You​ ​have​ ​seemed​ ​more invested​ ​in​ ​this​ ​case​ ​than​ ​anybody​ ​else.​ ​His​ ​care​ ​will​ ​be​ ​continued​ ​at​ ​an​ ​institution​ ​more befitting​ ​his​ ​condition.”​ ​The​ ​doctor​ ​looked​ ​as​ ​though​ ​he​ ​was​ ​momentarily​ ​struck​ ​with​ ​guilt.
“Moved​ ​but…”
“His​ ​condition​ ​is​ ​no​ ​longer​ ​repairable​ ​with​ ​physical​ ​care​ ​so​ ​he​ ​will​ ​be​ ​referred​ ​to​ ​one​ ​of​ ​our sister​ ​facilities​ ​that​ ​specialize​ ​in​ ​mental​ ​illness​ ​and​ ​disability​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​continued​ ​care​ ​until​ ​he can​ ​be​ ​sorted​ ​out.”
The​ ​detective’s​ ​brow​ ​creased​ ​sharply.​ ​”You​ ​mean​ ​he’s​ ​going​ ​to​ ​a​ ​convalescent​ ​home​ ​where​ ​he’s expected​ ​to​ ​die.​ ​What​ ​happened​ ​to​ ​the​ ​other​ ​tests​ ​you​ ​were​ ​going​ ​to​ ​run?​ ​What​ ​happened​ ​to the​ ​records​ ​you​ ​were​ ​going​ ​to​ ​find,​ ​his​ ​birth​ ​certificate,​ ​something?​ ​What​ ​about​ ​his​ ​physical injuries?​ ​He’s​ ​just​ ​going​ ​to​ ​be​ ​left​ ​to​ ​rot​ ​in​ ​some​ ​place​ ​surrounded​ ​by​ ​death​ ​and​ ​you’re​ ​okay with​ ​never​ ​knowing​ ​what​ ​happened?”​ ​
The​ ​detective​ ​had​ ​become​ ​animated.​ ​It​ ​felt​ ​like something​ ​was​ ​afoot.​ ​Wheels​ ​were​ ​turning​ ​that​ ​he​ ​couldn’t​ ​see​ ​and​ ​he​ ​was​ ​becoming​ ​trapped in​ ​the​ ​mechanism​ ​of​ ​a​ ​machine​ ​that​ ​was​ ​too​ ​large​ ​for​ ​him​ ​to​ ​see​ ​the​ ​details​ ​of.
“It’s​ ​not​ ​a​ ​matter​ ​if​ ​that.​ ​He​ ​is​ ​a​ ​ward​ ​of​ ​the​ ​state.​ ​With​ ​no​ ​living​ ​mother​ ​or​ ​father​ ​he…”
“A​ ​ward​ ​of​ ​the​ ​state?​ ​This​ ​is​ ​bullshit!”
“This​ ​is​ ​not​ ​something​ ​that​ ​I​ ​recommended.”
“Not​ ​something​ ​you​ ​recommended​ ​but​ ​not​ ​something​ ​you’re​ ​fighting​ ​either!​ ​I​ ​thought​ ​the​ ​tests would​ ​give​ ​us​ ​some​ ​clue​ ​that​ ​he​ ​is​ ​still​ ​in​ ​there.​ ​He’s​ ​the​ ​only​ ​lead​ ​I​ ​have!”
“Keep​ ​your​ ​voice​ ​down​ ​and​ ​listen​ ​to​ ​me.​ ​I​ ​ran​ ​the​ ​tests​ ​and​ ​that’s​ ​why​ ​he’s​ ​being​ ​moved.”
“What?”
“He’s​ ​still​ ​in​ ​there​ ​and​ ​very​ ​much​ ​alive.​ ​He’s​ ​never​ ​been​ ​on​ ​life​ ​support,​ ​not​ ​this​ ​entire​ ​time.​ ​His body​ ​rejects​ ​all​ ​pain​ ​medications,​ ​all​ ​medications​ ​of​ ​any​ ​kind​ ​within​ ​minutes,​ ​hours​ ​at​ ​best,​ ​and he’s​ ​been​ ​physically​ ​healed​ ​since​ ​the​ ​second​ ​day​ ​he​ ​was​ ​here.​ ​Something​ ​happened​ ​that​ ​night you​ ​were​ ​here​ ​so​ ​late​ ​and​ ​he’s​ ​been​ ​physically​ ​perfect​ ​since.​ ​His​ ​birth​ ​certificate​ ​does​ ​list​ ​his legal​ ​name​ ​as​ ​Elia.​ ​It’s​ ​Elia​ ​Darkstar,​ ​which​ ​is​ ​different​ ​than​ ​his​ ​mother’s​ ​name.​ ​You​ ​were​ ​right about​ ​that​ ​much​ ​which​ ​is​ ​only​ ​minimally​ ​odd​ ​compared​ ​to​ ​everything​ ​else​ ​about​ ​him.​ ​There​ ​is​ ​a hidden​ ​strand​ ​within​ ​his​ ​DNA​ ​but​ ​everything,​ ​everything​ ​I​ ​did​ ​has​ ​been​ ​taken​ ​and​ ​if​ ​anyone finds​ ​out​ ​i​ ​told​ ​you​ ​any​ ​bit​ ​of​ ​this…​ ​They​ ​can’t​ ​take​ ​him​ ​from​ ​you​ ​though.​ ​You​ ​could​ ​go​ ​public with​ ​what​ ​you​ ​already​ ​have,​ ​so​ ​you​ ​stay​ ​with​ ​him.​ ​You​ ​may​ ​be​ ​the​ ​only​ ​one​ ​who​ ​ever​ ​wants him​ ​to​ ​wake​ ​up.​ ​You​ ​may​ ​be​ ​the​ ​only​ ​one​ ​who​ ​ever​ ​finds​ ​out​ ​what​ ​he​ ​is​ ​because​ ​I​ ​certainly won’t​ ​and​ ​I​ ​think​ ​you’re​ ​the​ ​only​ ​reason​ ​he​ ​hasn’t​ ​just​ ​disappeared​ ​into​ ​the​ ​system​ ​so​ ​someone else​ ​can​ ​dismantle​ ​him​ ​before​ ​he​ ​opens​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​again.”​ ​The​ ​doctor’s​ ​voice​ ​had​ ​been​ ​nothing more​ ​than​ ​an​ ​impassioned​ ​whisper.​ ​His​ ​fists​ ​clenched​ ​as​ ​he​ ​went​ ​silent​ ​in​ ​an​ ​attempt​ ​to​ ​hide shaking​ ​hands.​
​That​ ​night…​ ​that​ ​night​ ​he​ ​had​ ​seen​ ​an​ ​apparition.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​since​ ​blamed​ ​it​ ​on exhaustion.​ ​It​ ​hadn’t​ ​happened.​ ​But​ ​the​ ​doctor​ ​said​ ​that​ ​something​ ​had​ ​happened.​ ​He​ ​had been​ ​told​ ​the​ ​boy’s​ ​name​ ​by​ ​someone​ ​who​ ​had​ ​known​ ​who​ ​Elia​ ​was.​ ​Could​ ​that​ ​person​ ​have done​ ​something​ ​to​ ​Elia,​ ​something​ ​that​ ​would​ ​explain​ ​what​ ​the​ ​doctor​ ​was​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​tell​ ​him?
He​ ​would​ ​follow​ ​him.​ ​The​ ​detective​ ​had​ ​sworn​ ​since​ ​that​ ​first​ ​night​ ​that​ ​he​ ​would​ ​be​ ​there when​ ​Elia​ ​opened​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​for​ ​the​ ​first​ ​time.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​know​ ​what​ ​his​ ​voice​ ​sounded​ ​like and​ ​he​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​beg​ ​the​ ​boy’s​ ​forgiveness​ ​for​ ​not​ ​having​ ​found​ ​him​ ​sooner.​ ​Then​ ​the​ ​world caught​ ​up​ ​with​ ​him​ ​and​ ​he​ ​fought​ ​to​ ​find​ ​his​ ​voice.
“Is​ ​Elia​ ​even​ ​human?”​ ​Of​ ​course​ ​he​ ​was.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​to​ ​be.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​a​ ​child​ ​born​ ​to​ ​a​ ​mother,​ ​but​ ​his father…​ ​what​ ​if​ ​that​ ​apparition​ ​had​ ​been​ ​his​ ​father?
“I​ ​can’t​ ​tell​ ​you​ ​for​ ​sure.​ ​He​ ​is…​ ​more​ ​than​ ​human.​ ​Look​ ​at​ ​him.​ ​Look​ ​hard​ ​when​ ​you​ ​sit​ ​with him.​ ​Does​ ​he​ ​look​ ​like​ ​a​ ​normal​ ​human​ ​boy​ ​to​ ​you?​ ​I​ ​think…​ ​I​ ​think​ ​we​ ​stumbled​ ​on​ ​to something​ ​here,​ ​something​ ​far​ ​bigger​ ​than​ ​that​ ​serial​ ​killer.​ ​I​ ​think​ ​Elia​ ​is​ ​human,​ ​but​ ​also something​ ​else.​ ​I​ ​think​ ​I​ ​could​ ​confirm​ ​that​ ​if​ ​I​ ​had​ ​the​ ​mother’s​ ​body,​ ​but​ ​it​ ​was​ ​taken​ ​away before​ ​I​ ​could​ ​find​ ​more​ ​than​ ​that​ ​they​ ​shared​ ​the​ ​same​ ​DNA​ ​and​ ​were​ ​most​ ​definitely related, that​ ​she​ ​was​ ​his​ ​mother.”
“Why​ ​would​ ​the​ ​body​ ​be​ ​taken​ ​anywhere​ ​when​ ​I​ ​haven’t​ ​finished​ ​the​ ​case?​ ​It​ ​never​ ​should have​ ​been​ ​touched.​ ​I​ ​haven’t​ ​even​ ​scratched​ ​the​ ​surface​ ​of​ ​this.​ ​What​ ​if​ ​I​ ​can’t​ ​recover​ ​the bodies​ ​of​ ​the​ ​other​ ​kids​ ​that​ ​man​ ​killed?​ ​What​ ​will​ ​I​ ​tell​ ​that​ ​boy​ ​when​ ​he​ ​wakes​ ​up​ ​and​ ​wants to​ ​know​ ​what​ ​happened​ ​to​ ​him,​ ​to​ ​his​ ​mother?”
“Nothing.​ ​You​ ​tell​ ​him​ ​nothing​ ​because​ ​he​ ​already​ ​should​ ​know​ ​that​ ​she’s​ ​dead.​ ​He​ ​saw​ ​it before​ ​you​ ​did​ ​undoubtedly.​ ​You​ ​won’t​ ​have​ ​to​ ​tell​ ​him​ ​anything​ ​because​ ​Elia​ ​has​ ​all​ ​the answers.​ ​You​ ​just​ ​keep​ ​him​ ​in​ ​your​ ​sights.​ ​No​ ​matter​ ​what,​ ​don’t​ ​lose​ ​him​ ​if​ ​you​ ​want​ ​to​ ​know the​ ​truth.​ ​They​ ​will​ ​give​ ​him​ ​physical​ ​therapy​ ​and​ ​care​ ​for​ ​him​ ​like​ ​any​ ​other​ ​non​ ​responsive patient.​ ​So​ ​long​ ​as​ ​they​ ​believe​ ​that​ ​he​ ​still​ ​has​ ​ties​ ​to​ ​you​ ​they​ ​will​ ​keep​ ​things​ ​looking​ ​normal and​ ​try​ ​wait​ ​you​ ​out,​ ​and​ ​you,​ ​you​ ​might​ ​get​ ​some​ ​answers​ ​if​ ​you​ ​just​ ​stay​ ​with​ ​him.”
The​ ​doctor​ ​briskly​ ​walked​ ​away​ ​looking​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​more​ ​agitated​ ​than​ ​he​ ​actually​ ​was.​ ​The​ ​detective scowled​ ​after​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​it​ ​was​ ​a​ ​show.​ ​Anyone​ ​watching​ ​would​ ​believe​ ​they​ ​had​ ​argued, not​ ​exchanged​ ​information.​ ​There​ ​couldn’t​ ​be​ ​this​ ​much​ ​deception​ ​surrounding​ ​one unconscious​ ​child.​ ​There​ ​couldn’t​ ​possibly​ ​be​ ​anyone​ ​who​ ​would​ ​make​ ​Elia​ ​disappear,​ ​right?
He​ ​passed​ ​through​ ​the​ ​door​ ​and​ ​into​ ​the​ ​quiet​ ​room.​ ​There​ ​he​ ​was,​ ​as​ ​pale​ ​and​ ​frail​ ​as​ ​he​ ​had been​ ​the​ ​day​ ​the​ ​detective​ ​first​ ​laid​ ​eyes​ ​on​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​an​ ​IV​ ​going​ ​to​ ​one​ ​arm​ ​that​ ​was​ ​taped at​ ​his​ ​elbow.​ ​His​ ​eyes​ ​remained​ ​closed.​ ​He​ ​looked​ ​almost​ ​peaceful,​ ​almost.​ ​There​ ​was​ ​a​ ​nearly imperceptible​ ​crease​ ​that​ ​marked​ ​his​ ​features​ ​in​ ​a​ ​vague​ ​feeling​ ​of​ ​distress.​ ​The​ ​detective sighed​ ​as​ ​he​ ​sat​ ​in​ ​the​ ​chair​ ​by​ ​his​ ​bed.
“How​ ​are​ ​you​ ​today,​ ​Elia?​ ​I​ ​hope​ ​you​ ​have​ ​been​ ​well.​ ​I​ ​have​ ​had​ ​a​ ​rather​ ​uninteresting​ ​day myself,​ ​right​ ​up​ ​until​ ​I​ ​got​ ​here.​ ​You​ ​know,​ ​I​ ​heard​ ​that​ ​they​ ​are​ ​going​ ​to​ ​move​ ​you​ ​because you’re​ ​doing​ ​so​ ​well.​ ​That​ ​makes​ ​me​ ​happy;​ ​that​ ​you’re​ ​doing​ ​well,​ ​but​ ​not​ ​that​ ​you​ ​are​ ​going to​ ​be​ ​someplace​ ​else.​ ​Don’t​ ​worry​ ​though,​ ​I’ll​ ​still​ ​come​ ​visit​ ​you​ ​each​ ​and​ ​every​ ​day.​ ​I’m​ ​going to​ ​have​ ​to​ ​start​ ​bringing​ ​my​ ​case​ ​files​ ​with​ ​me.​ ​You​ ​wouldn’t​ ​mind​ ​that​ ​would​ ​you?​ ​I​ ​thought not.​ ​I​ ​really​ ​wish​ ​you’d…​ ​you’d​ ​talk​ ​to​ ​me…”​ ​The​ ​detective’s​ ​face​ ​momentarily​ ​contorted​ ​in pain.​ ​When​ ​he​ ​continued,​ ​his​ ​tone​ ​was​ ​light.​ ​He​ ​hoped​ ​that​ ​somehow,​ ​some​ ​part​ ​of​ ​this​ ​was getting​ ​through.​ ​Elia​ ​had​ ​not​ ​known​ ​him​ ​before​ ​but​ ​he​ ​hoped​ ​that​ ​the​ ​sound​ ​of​ ​someone saying​ ​his​ ​name​ ​in​ ​a​ ​caring​ ​way​ ​would​ ​be​ ​enough.​ ​Then​ ​it​ ​dawned​ ​on​ ​him;​ ​the​ ​words​ ​the​ ​doctor had​ ​said​ ​quietly​ ​played​ ​in​ ​his​ ​mind​ ​as​ ​he​ ​sat,​ ​talking​ ​about…​ ​anything.
Was​ ​Elia​ ​really​ ​different​ ​from​ ​any​ ​other​ ​normal​ ​boy?​ ​Sure​ ​he​ ​was​ ​delicate.​ ​Even​ ​healthy,​ ​his small​ ​long​ ​build​ ​gave​ ​him​ ​a​ ​foreign​ ​quality.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​pale,​ ​though​ ​not​ ​so​ ​much​ ​that​ ​he​ ​appeared to​ ​be​ ​ill.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​a​ ​small​ ​overbite​ ​which​ ​was​ ​accentuated​ ​by​ ​lips​ ​that​ ​looked​ ​as​ ​though​ ​they​ ​had been​ ​stained​ ​by​ ​strawberries,​ ​wine​ ​if​ ​he’d​ ​been​ ​older.​ ​Freckles​ ​covered​ ​his​ ​cheeks​ ​and​ ​the bridge​ ​of​ ​his​ ​nose.​ ​He​ ​would​ ​probably​ ​outgrow​ ​those.​ ​His​ ​dark​ ​hair​ ​framed​ ​his​ ​face​ ​in​ ​long lustrous​ ​silk​ ​that​ ​had​ ​only​ ​the​ ​slightest​ ​hint​ ​of​ ​warmth​ ​to​ ​it.​ ​All​ ​of​ ​these​ ​things​ ​were​ ​things​ ​that a​ ​normal​ ​boy​ ​could​ ​have,​ ​even​ ​the​ ​androgyny​ ​because​ ​of​ ​how​ ​slight​ ​he​ ​was,​ ​how​ ​stark​ ​the contrast​ ​between​ ​his​ ​freckles​ ​and​ ​the​ ​rose​ ​of​ ​his​ ​cheeks,​ ​and​ ​how​ ​gentle​ ​his​ ​features​ ​were, even​ ​when​ ​marked​ ​with​ ​the​ ​hint​ ​of​ ​some​ ​secret​ ​suffering.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​a​ ​normal​ ​boy!​ ​He​ ​was!​ ​There was​ ​no​ ​reason​ ​to​ ​think​ ​otherwise​ ​based​ ​on​ ​his​ ​appearance.​ ​So​ ​what​ ​was​ ​the​ ​doctor​ ​talking about?
For​ ​the​ ​first​ ​time​ ​since​ ​he​ ​had​ ​come​ ​to​ ​be​ ​in​ ​this​ ​room,​ ​shared​ ​it​ ​with​ ​him,​ ​he​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​feel that​ ​Elia​ ​was​ ​really​ ​there.​ ​If​ ​he​ ​was​ ​real​ ​he​ ​would​ ​feel​ ​it,​ ​know​ ​it​ ​in​ ​his​ ​bones.​ ​Hesitantly,​ ​he stretched​ ​his​ ​fingers​ ​towards​ ​black​ ​hair​ ​until​ ​they​ ​smoothed​ ​dark​ ​silky​ ​strands​ ​away​ ​from​ ​a young​ ​face.​ ​How​ ​could​ ​anyone​ ​have​ ​hurt​ ​this​ ​child?​ ​His​ ​stomach​ ​turned​ ​at​ ​the​ ​thought​ ​of​ ​it.​ ​He tried​ ​to​ ​be​ ​soothing,​ ​like​ ​he​ ​had​ ​seen​ ​the​ ​apparition​ ​be,​ ​and​ ​watched​ ​as​ ​Elia’s​ ​expression changed​ ​ever​ ​so​ ​slightly.​ ​If​ ​he​ ​was​ ​reacting​ ​this​ ​much,​ ​why​ ​wasn’t​ ​he​ ​opening​ ​his​ ​eyes?​ ​Why hadn’t​ ​the​ ​detective​ ​thought​ ​to​ ​do​ ​this​ ​before?​ ​Wasn’t​ ​there​ ​a​ ​nurse​ ​or​ ​something​ ​who​ ​cared that​ ​this​ ​boy​ ​was​ ​alone,​ ​like​ ​this,​ ​lost​ ​inside​ ​his​ ​own​ ​frail​ ​form?​ ​He​ ​couldn’t​ ​be​ ​the​ ​only​ ​one​ ​who touched​ ​him​ ​in​ ​a​ ​caring​ ​way.​ ​It​ ​broke​ ​his​ ​heart​ ​to​ ​think​ ​it.​ ​His​ ​hand​ ​slipped​ ​away​ ​as​ ​Elia’s​ ​lips parted​ ​and​ ​he​ ​took​ ​what​ ​may​ ​have​ ​been​ ​a​ ​contented​ ​sigh.​ ​This​ ​was​ ​just​ ​a​ ​boy,​ ​just​ ​like​ ​any other,​ ​but​ ​then​ ​the​ ​detective​ ​noticed​ ​something​ ​he​ ​hadn’t​ ​noticed​ ​before.​ ​Elia​ ​had​ ​an​ ​overbite, not​ ​unusual,​ ​until​ ​you​ ​came​ ​upon​ ​canines​ ​that​ ​extended​ ​down​ ​far​ ​further​ ​than​ ​they​ ​should have.​ ​He​ ​should​ ​be​ ​able​ ​to​ ​see​ ​the​ ​edges​ ​of​ ​those​ ​teeth​ ​but​ ​he​ ​couldn’t.​ ​His​ ​canines​ ​were longer,​ ​like​ ​an​ ​animal’s.​ ​The​ ​detective​ ​scowled​ ​and​ ​craned​ ​over.​ ​This​ ​could​ ​still​ ​be​ ​normal. There​ ​were​ ​all​ ​sorts​ ​of​ ​teeth​ ​in​ ​the​ ​world.​ ​It​ ​didn’t​ ​mean​ ​anything.​ ​Then​ ​he​ ​noticed​ ​the​ ​soft round​ ​of​ ​each​ ​ear​ ​that​ ​ended​ ​in​ ​a​ ​point​ ​at​ ​the​ ​upper​ ​tips.​ ​It​ ​had​ ​been​ ​hidden​ ​by​ ​his​ ​hair​ ​but​ ​was unmistakable.​ ​The​ ​detective’s​ ​scowl​ ​deepened.​ ​​ ​What​ ​had​ ​the​ ​doctor​ ​found?

*​ ​*​ ​*

He​ ​was​ ​sitting​ ​in​ ​the​ ​chair,​ ​perfectly​ ​still,​ ​with​ ​the​ ​exception​ ​of​ ​the​ ​hand​ ​that​ ​moved​ ​across​ ​the​ ​page,​ ​a  color​ ​pencil​ ​gripped​ ​tightly​ ​within​ ​it.​ ​His​ ​hair​ ​was​ ​still​ ​wet​ ​but​ ​he​ ​felt​ ​much​ ​better.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​changed  into​ ​soft​ ​flannel​ ​the​ ​moment​ ​he​ ​stepped​ ​from​ ​his​ ​bath​ ​and​ ​had​ ​a​ ​blanket​ ​wrapped​ ​about​ ​his​ ​shoulders.  Now,​ ​he​ ​was​ ​just​ ​waiting​ ​for​ ​dinner​ ​to​ ​be​ ​ready​ ​and​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​unwind.
His​ ​eyes​ ​slipped​ ​closed​ ​as​ ​his​ ​pencil​ ​moved​ ​over​ ​the​ ​page.​ ​His​ ​expression​ ​changed​ ​to​ ​one​ ​of​ ​contentment​ ​as he​ ​called​ ​and​ ​heard​ ​the​ ​unmistakable​ ​answer,​ ​the​ ​rich​ ​whispered​ ​male​ ​voice​ ​who​ ​responded​ ​to​ ​him​ ​more than​ ​the​ ​others.​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​that​ ​they​ ​would​ ​be​ ​bound​ ​to​ ​each​ ​other,​ ​guardian​ ​and​ ​wolf.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to meet​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​owned​ ​the​ ​voice​ ​that​ ​whispered​ ​to​ ​his​ ​mind.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​know​ ​his​ ​name​ ​so​ ​that​ ​they could​ ​share​ ​in​ ​the​ ​joy​ ​of​ ​their​ ​bond​ ​and​ ​walk​ ​the​ ​many​ ​planes​ ​together.​ ​Elia​ ​began​ ​to​ ​gather​ ​himself within​ ​his​ ​own​ ​mind.​ ​All​ ​he​ ​had​ ​to​ ​do​ ​was​ ​ask.​ ​If​ ​he​ ​asked,​ ​he​ ​knew​ ​the​ ​voice​ ​would​ ​tell​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​would know​ ​the​ ​name​ ​he​ ​should​ ​call​ ​so​ ​that​ ​he​ ​would​ ​never​ ​be​ ​alone.​ ​All​ ​he​ ​had​ ​to​ ​do​ ​was​ ​put​ ​his​ ​intentions forward.​ ​He​ ​would​ ​be​ ​accepted​ ​so​ ​long​ ​as​ ​he​ ​didn’t​ ​falter.​ ​He​ ​couldn’t​ ​doubt…
The​ ​crash​ ​from​ ​beside​ ​him​ ​nearly​ ​made​ ​him​ ​jump​ ​out​ ​of​ ​his​ ​skin.​ ​He​ ​blinked​ ​and​ ​took​ ​a​ ​sharp​ ​breath​ ​as  his​ ​mother’s​ ​arm​ ​folded​ ​around​ ​him.​ ​What​ ​had​ ​happened?​ ​His​ ​eyes​ ​found​ ​what​ ​had​ ​broken;​ ​a​ ​glass​ ​of  milk​ ​upon​ ​the​ ​floor​ ​smashed​ ​into​ ​a​ ​thousand​ ​pieces.
“Mom?”​ ​Elia’s​ ​eyes​ ​darted​ ​about​ ​his​ ​room,​ ​uncertain​ ​why​ ​his​ ​mom​ ​may​ ​have​ ​had​ ​such​ ​a​ ​response.​ ​He  nuzzled​ ​into​ ​her​ ​arm​ ​in​ ​an​ ​effort​ ​to​ ​comfort​ ​her.
“Where​ ​did​ ​you​ ​see​ ​that​ ​Elia?​ ​Where​ ​did​ ​you​ ​see​ ​this​ ​person?”​ ​She​ ​was​ ​crying​ ​into​ ​his​ ​hair.​ ​Elia​ ​didn’t  understand​ ​what​ ​she​ ​was​ ​talking​ ​about.​ ​Who​ ​was​ ​she​ ​talking​ ​about?​ ​Then​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​strayed​ ​down​ ​to​ ​the drawing.​ ​His​ ​fingers​ ​released​ ​the​ ​pencil​ ​and​ ​touched​ ​the​ ​features​ ​he​ ​had​ ​clearly​ ​drawn​ ​upon​ ​the​ ​page.​ ​Is that​ ​what​ ​he​ ​looked​ ​like?​ ​Had​ ​he​ ​drawn​ ​the​ ​face​ ​that​ ​matched​ ​that​ ​gentle​ ​voice​ ​that​ ​soothed​ ​the​ ​rough edges​ ​of​ ​his​ ​mind​ ​like​ ​the​ ​sound​ ​of​ ​a​ ​breeze​ ​through​ ​leaves?​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​the​ ​answer​ ​and​ ​traced​ ​over​ ​his rough​ ​work​ ​another​ ​time,​ ​pursing​ ​his​ ​lips​ ​as​ ​he​ ​did​ ​so.​ ​His​ ​mom​ ​shouldn’t​ ​know​ ​who​ ​that​ ​was.​ ​It​ ​had  been​ ​his​ ​father​ ​who​ ​had​ ​the​ ​fae​ ​blood,​ ​so​ ​how​ ​did​ ​she​ ​know?

*​ ​*​ ​*

His​ ​hand​ ​rested​ ​on​ ​the​ ​files​ ​in​ ​the​ ​seat​ ​beside​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​been​ ​on​ ​the​ ​road​ ​for​ ​about​ ​twenty minutes​ ​and​ ​had​ ​twenty​ ​more​ ​before​ ​he​ ​reached​ ​his​ ​destination.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​made​ ​this​ ​trip,​ ​as promised,​ ​every​ ​day.​ ​He​ ​actually​ ​looked​ ​forward​ ​to​ ​the​ ​quiet,​ ​the​ ​peace​ ​that​ ​came​ ​with​ ​talking to​ ​the​ ​boy​ ​who​ ​waited.​ ​Elia’s​ ​condition​ ​was​ ​unchanged.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​even​ ​think​ ​they​ ​were​ ​doing anything​ ​for​ ​him.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​much​ ​as​ ​the​ ​doctor​ ​said:​ ​they​ ​were​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​wait​ ​him​ ​out,​ ​see​ ​if​ ​he would​ ​lose​ ​interest​ ​and​ ​stop​ ​making​ ​the​ ​drive.​ ​That​ ​wasn’t​ ​going​ ​to​ ​happen.​ ​He’d​ ​given​ ​his word.​ ​This​ ​boy​ ​deserved​ ​an​ ​explanation​ ​when​ ​he​ ​woke​ ​up.​ ​This​ ​boy​ ​deserved​ ​to​ ​wake​ ​up. Whomever​ ​they​ ​were,​ ​he​ ​was​ ​not​ ​going​ ​to​ ​allow​ ​them​ ​to​ ​ferret​ ​this​ ​boy​ ​away​ ​and​ ​ensure​ ​those big​ ​blue​ ​eyes​ ​would​ ​never​ ​open​ ​again.​ ​It​ ​wasn’t​ ​going​ ​to​ ​happen.
He​ ​pulled​ ​away​ ​from​ ​a​ ​light​ ​and​ ​sighed.​ ​He​ ​needed​ ​a​ ​lead.​ ​He​ ​needed​ ​more​ ​than​ ​a​ ​name​ ​and smoke.​ ​He​ ​needed​ ​something​ ​substantial​ ​that​ ​he​ ​could​ ​wrap​ ​his​ ​fingers​ ​around.​ ​The​ ​case​ ​ran through​ ​his​ ​mind​ ​over​ ​and​ ​over,​ ​like​ ​a​ ​gruesome​ ​carousel.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​even​ ​more​ ​questions​ ​now,​ ​so many​ ​more​ ​questions.
The​ ​car​ ​passed​ ​below​ ​the​ ​stone​ ​arches,​ ​through​ ​the​ ​iron​ ​gate,​ ​and​ ​pulled​ ​up​ ​to​ ​a​ ​booth​ ​and​ ​a guard​ ​that​ ​had​ ​a​ ​bar​ ​which​ ​blocked​ ​his​ ​path.​ ​He​ ​frowned​ ​as​ ​the​ ​guard​ ​asked​ ​him​ ​for identification​ ​and​ ​then​ ​again​ ​when​ ​it​ ​was​ ​checked​ ​against​ ​a​ ​list.​ ​Why​ ​did​ ​they​ ​do​ ​this​ ​every single​ ​time?​ ​He​ ​had​ ​been​ ​there​ ​every​ ​day.
His​ ​identification​ ​was​ ​returned​ ​and​ ​he​ ​slowly​ ​pulled​ ​through​ ​when​ ​the​ ​guard​ ​cleared​ ​the​ ​way. He​ ​shook​ ​his​ ​head​ ​as​ ​he​ ​collected​ ​the​ ​files​ ​from​ ​the​ ​seat​ ​beside​ ​him.​ ​It​ ​had​ ​been​ ​nearly​ ​a​ ​year and​ ​he​ ​was​ ​still​ ​being​ ​treated​ ​the​ ​same​ ​way​ ​that​ ​he​ ​had​ ​been​ ​the​ ​first​ ​day​ ​he​ ​passed​ ​beneath that​ ​arch.​ ​He​ ​hadn’t​ ​expected​ ​a​ ​warm​ ​welcome​ ​but​ ​he​ ​had​ ​perhaps​ ​expected​ ​a​ ​little​ ​more​ ​than this.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​through​ ​the​ ​doors​ ​and​ ​two​ ​of​ ​the​ ​three​ ​check​ ​points​ ​without​ ​even​ ​thinking.​ ​The only​ ​good​ ​thing​ ​about​ ​this​ ​place​ ​was​ ​the​ ​view​ ​and​ ​the​ ​child​ ​that​ ​waited​ ​for​ ​him.​ ​No​ ​one​ ​could possibly​ ​heal​ ​here.
Another​ ​patient​ ​bumped​ ​into​ ​him​ ​on​ ​their​ ​way​ ​past​ ​and​ ​mumbled​ ​something​ ​unintelligible before​ ​being​ ​collected​ ​by​ ​a​ ​nurse.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​almost​ ​there.​ ​He​ ​rounded​ ​a​ ​corner​ ​and​ ​passed​ ​two closed​ ​doors​ ​before​ ​stopping​ ​in​ ​front​ ​of​ ​the​ ​one​ ​that​ ​was​ ​his​ ​destination.​ ​Maybe​ ​something would​ ​be​ ​different​ ​today.​ ​Maybe​ ​there​ ​would​ ​be​ ​some​ ​sign​ ​that​ ​this​ ​had​ ​all​ ​happened​ ​for​ ​a reason.​ ​He​ ​took​ ​a​ ​breath​ ​and​ ​turned​ ​the​ ​knob,​ ​letting​ ​himself​ ​into​ ​the​ ​room​ ​before​ ​he​ ​allowed his​ ​eyes​ ​to​ ​find​ ​the​ ​bed​ ​where​ ​Elia​ ​lay.​ ​His​ ​blood​ ​went​ ​cold​ ​in​ ​his​ ​veins.​ ​Gone!
The​ ​folders​ ​almost​ ​fell​ ​from​ ​his​ ​hands​ ​as​ ​he​ ​fled​ ​the​ ​room​ ​without​ ​even​ ​closing​ ​the​ ​door​ ​behind him.​ ​He​ ​all​ ​but​ ​flew​ ​to​ ​the​ ​nearest​ ​nurses’​ ​station.​ ​There​ ​had​ ​to​ ​be​ ​some​ ​explanation.​ ​Dread seized​ ​his​ ​heart​ ​as​ ​the​ ​woman​ ​behind​ ​the​ ​counter​ ​blinked​ ​up​ ​at​ ​him.
“Where​ ​is​ ​he?”
“Sir,​ ​you’re​ ​going​ ​to​ ​have​ ​to​ ​calm​ ​down​ ​before​ ​I​ ​can​ ​help​ ​you.”
Calm​ ​down.​ ​Calm​ ​down?​ ​Each​ ​moment​ ​that​ ​ticked​ ​by​ ​Elia​ ​could​ ​be​ ​further​ ​away,​ ​closer​ ​to​ ​being truly​ ​lost.​ ​He​ ​couldn’t​ ​become​ ​calm.​ ​“Where​ ​has​ ​Elia​ ​Darkstar​ ​been​ ​moved,​ ​please?”
That​ ​was​ ​as​ ​good​ ​as​ ​she​ ​was​ ​going​ ​to​ ​get​ ​and​ ​she​ ​seemed​ ​to​ ​somehow​ ​know​ ​that.​ ​Slowly​ ​she turned​ ​to​ ​a​ ​clipboard​ ​and​ ​began​ ​to​ ​leaf​ ​through​ ​its​ ​pages.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​taking​ ​every​ ​ounce​ ​of​ ​his​ ​being to​ ​not​ ​snatch​ ​it​ ​from​ ​her​ ​and​ ​look​ ​at​ ​it​ ​himself,​ ​and​ ​he​ ​would​ ​have​ ​if​ ​he​ ​thought​ ​he​ ​could decipher​ ​what​ ​those​ ​pages​ ​told​ ​her.​ ​Her​ ​finger​ ​slid​ ​across​ ​one​ ​of​ ​the​ ​pages​ ​before​ ​she​ ​reached for​ ​a​ ​book​ ​that​ ​was​ ​beneath​ ​her​ ​counter.​ ​He​ ​took​ ​a​ ​deep​ ​breath​ ​and​ ​let​ ​it​ ​out,​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​temper jangled​ ​nerves​ ​and​ ​swallow​ ​the​ ​growing​ ​constriction​ ​in​ ​his​ ​chest.
Then​ ​he​ ​felt​ ​it.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​as​ ​though​ ​a​ ​cool​ ​breeze​ ​had​ ​entered​ ​and​ ​the​ ​pressure​ ​in​ ​the​ ​room​ ​around him​ ​changed.​ ​The​ ​woman​ ​before​ ​him​ ​didn’t​ ​seem​ ​to​ ​notice,​ ​but​ ​he​ ​shivered​ ​before​ ​he​ ​turned toward​ ​the​ ​hallway​ ​he​ ​had​ ​come​ ​from.​ ​There,​ ​in​ ​the​ ​lingering​ ​shadows​ ​that​ ​the​ ​florescent​ ​lights couldn’t​ ​seem​ ​to​ ​budge,​ ​stood​ ​a​ ​figure.​ ​His​ ​breath​ ​caught​ ​in​ ​his​ ​throat​ ​as​ ​his​ ​feet​ ​turned, carrying​ ​him​ ​away​ ​from​ ​the​ ​woman​ ​and​ ​her​ ​books,​ ​the​ ​spot​ ​of​ ​brightest​ ​light​ ​that​ ​now​ ​seemed garish​ ​and​ ​painful​ ​compared​ ​to​ ​the​ ​looming​ ​dusk​ ​before​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​hear​ ​the​ ​woman​ ​who called​ ​after​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​see​ ​the​ ​doors​ ​he​ ​passed​ ​or​ ​the​ ​lights​ ​going​ ​dim,​ ​as​ ​if​ ​to accommodate​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​walked​ ​before​ ​him.​ ​How​ ​had​ ​it​ ​become​ ​so​ ​dark?​ ​It​ ​hadn’t​ ​even been​ ​overcast​ ​when​ ​he​ ​arrived.
The​ ​garments​ ​of​ ​the​ ​one​ ​before​ ​him​ ​flowed​ ​about​ ​him​ ​as​ ​he​ ​walked,​ ​as​ ​though​ ​suspended​ ​by the​ ​air​ ​and​ ​unaffected​ ​by​ ​gravity​ ​itself.​ ​His​ ​hair​ ​was​ ​red,​ ​like​ ​blood,​ ​and​ ​framed​ ​his​ ​shoulders. He​ ​had​ ​thought​ ​it​ ​had​ ​been​ ​his​ ​imagination.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​thought​ ​the​ ​pale​ ​skin​ ​and​ ​cold​ ​burning​ ​eyes had​ ​been​ ​a​ ​fabrication​ ​created​ ​by​ ​the​ ​gore​ ​and​ ​pain​ ​he​ ​witnessed​ ​and​ ​the​ ​exhaustion.​ ​He​ ​still had​ ​nightmares​ ​but​ ​he​ ​couldn’t​ ​use​ ​those​ ​excuses​ ​to​ ​explain​ ​away​ ​the​ ​being​ ​that​ ​had​ ​appeared before​ ​him​ ​a​ ​second​ ​time.
“Elia?”​ ​His​ ​voice​ ​was​ ​a​ ​tentative​ ​whisper,​ ​as​ ​though​ ​he​ ​feared​ ​breaking​ ​the​ ​silence​ ​around them.​ ​The​ ​being​ ​turned​ ​to​ ​him​ ​and​ ​fixed​ ​him​ ​with​ ​his​ ​icy​ ​eyes​ ​before​ ​he​ ​nodded​ ​and​ ​turned away​ ​to​ ​continue​ ​forward.
“Are​ ​you​ ​a​ ​part​ ​of​ ​him?​ ​Are​ ​you​ ​real?”​ ​He​ ​hadn’t​ ​meant​ ​to​ ​say​ ​anything​ ​else​ ​but​ ​he​ ​had​ ​so many​ ​questions.
“I​ ​am​ ​like​ ​you.​ ​I​ ​protect​ ​him.​ ​I​ ​am​ ​from​ ​someplace​ ​else​ ​and​ ​can​ ​only​ ​come​ ​here​ ​when​ ​he​ ​calls,​ ​if he​ ​calls.”​ ​His​ ​voice​ ​was​ ​quiet,​ ​distant,​ ​and​ ​carried​ ​sadness​ ​as​ ​though​ ​they​ ​were​ ​leaves​ ​blown through​ ​a​ ​burning​ ​forest.​ ​“I​ ​am​ ​like​ ​him.​ ​I​ ​was​ ​not​ ​meant​ ​to​ ​be​ ​this​ ​but​ ​I​ ​am.​ ​I​ ​remain​ ​because he​ ​can​ ​not​ ​send​ ​me​ ​away…​ ​but​ ​I​ ​will​ ​use​ ​the​ ​time​ ​he​ ​has​ ​given​ ​me​ ​to​ ​make​ ​things​ ​right,​ ​one soul​ ​at​ ​a​ ​time.​ ​If​ ​you​ ​believe​ ​in​ ​him,​ ​continue​ ​to​ ​be​ ​with​ ​him​ ​and​ ​someday​ ​he​ ​will​ ​open​ ​his​ ​eyes. That​ ​I​ ​promise​ ​you.​ ​He​ ​is​ ​there.”
A​ ​long​ ​pale​ ​hand​ ​rose​ ​before​ ​a​ ​finger​ ​extended,​ ​pointing.​ ​They​ ​were​ ​beside​ ​a​ ​door​ ​that​ ​was framed​ ​by​ ​giant​ ​windows.​ ​He​ ​hadn’t​ ​even​ ​realized​ ​until​ ​he​ ​turned​ ​to​ ​follow​ ​where​ ​the​ ​hand​ ​was pointing.​ ​The​ ​light​ ​made​ ​him​ ​blink​ ​and​ ​obscured​ ​his​ ​view​ ​before​ ​he​ ​turned​ ​back​ ​to​ ​the​ ​figure who​ ​had​ ​directed​ ​him.​ ​Now​ ​the​ ​blood​ ​of​ ​his​ ​hair,​ ​the​ ​ice​ ​of​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​was​ ​even​ ​more​ ​pronounced and​ ​the​ ​design​ ​on​ ​the​ ​far​ ​side​ ​of​ ​his​ ​face​ ​was​ ​visible​ ​as​ ​scarring​ ​and​ ​not​ ​just​ ​decoration.​ ​Even​ ​in the​ ​light​ ​there​ ​was​ ​a​ ​glow,​ ​as​ ​though​ ​ghostly​ ​fire​ ​burned​ ​upon​ ​his​ ​face​ ​and​ ​the​ ​swirls​ ​were​ ​the paths​ ​that​ ​fire​ ​took.
“What​ ​are​ ​you?”​ ​It​ ​was​ ​another​ ​question​ ​he​ ​hadn’t​ ​meant​ ​to​ ​say​ ​but​ ​didn’t​ ​regret​ ​until​ ​the creature​ ​fixed​ ​him​ ​with​ ​a​ ​stare​ ​he​ ​hadn’t​ ​expected.
“I’m​ ​nothing.​ ​I’m​ ​what​ ​happens​ ​when​ ​a​ ​soul​ ​gets​ ​so​ ​angry​ ​it​ ​must​ ​live​ ​upon​ ​others.​ ​I’m​ ​the corruption​ ​of​ ​purity.​ ​I​ ​am​ ​a​ ​darkness​ ​that​ ​should​ ​have​ ​remained​ ​light.”​ ​Those​ ​eyes​ ​were​ ​trained upon​ ​him,​ ​unblinking​ ​as​ ​he​ ​absorbed​ ​the​ ​words​ ​that​ ​were​ ​barely​ ​a​ ​whisper.
“Is​ ​it​ ​your​ ​fault​ ​he​ ​won’t​ ​come​ ​back?​ ​Did​ ​you​ ​do​ ​this​ ​to​ ​him?”
Before​ ​he​ ​could​ ​react,​ ​long​ ​elegant​ ​fingers​ ​circled​ ​his​ ​throat,​ ​cold​ ​and​ ​dry,​ ​​ ​holding​ ​him​ ​still despite​ ​his​ ​wish​ ​to​ ​flee.​ ​Their​ ​eyes​ ​met​ ​and​ ​he​ ​knew​ ​the​ ​answer.​ ​This​ ​creature​ ​would​ ​never harm​ ​that​ ​boy.​ ​This​ ​creature,​ ​who​ ​was​ ​so​ ​close​ ​and​ ​so​ ​fearsome,​ ​with​ ​its​ ​unearthly​ ​appearance and​ ​presence​ ​that​ ​exuded​ ​harm,​ ​empathized​ ​with​ ​the​ ​child​ ​he​ ​guarded​ ​on​ ​a​ ​level​ ​no​ ​one​ ​else would​ ​ever​ ​understand.
“You​ ​should​ ​go​ ​to​ ​him.​ ​You​ ​need​ ​to​ ​protect​ ​him​ ​because,​ ​if​ ​I​ ​feel​ ​you​ ​are​ ​no​ ​longer​ ​necessary, you​ ​will​ ​be​ ​very​ ​sorry.”
With​ ​that,​ ​he​ ​was​ ​released,​ ​choking​ ​and​ ​sputtering​ ​as​ ​though​ ​his​ ​body​ ​had​ ​forgotten​ ​how​ ​to draw​ ​breath.​ ​His​ ​eyes​ ​watered​ ​and​ ​he​ ​braced​ ​himself​ ​against​ ​the​ ​window,​ ​steadying​ ​himself until​ ​he​ ​could​ ​straighten​ ​and​ ​turn​ ​back​ ​to​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​had​ ​held​ ​him.​ ​Gone.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​alone​ ​in front​ ​of​ ​the​ ​great​ ​glass​ ​doors​ ​that​ ​were​ ​surrounded​ ​by​ ​their​ ​many​ ​windows.​ ​Now​ ​he​ ​could​ ​see a​ ​wheelchair​ ​outside​ ​on​ ​the​ ​venerable​ ​stone​ ​patio,​ ​and​ ​within​ ​it,​ ​Elia.

*​ ​*​ ​*

It​ ​had​ ​almost​ ​gone​ ​back​ ​to​ ​normal,​ ​almost.​ ​There​ ​was​ ​still​ ​this​ ​pending​ ​sense​ ​of​ ​doom​ ​that​ ​loomed​ ​over  them​ ​as​ ​they​ ​ate.​ ​When​ ​they​ ​caught​ ​each​ ​other’s​ ​eye​ ​across​ ​the​ ​table,​ ​there​ ​was​ ​the​ ​customary​ ​smile  that​ ​was​ ​shared​ ​and​ ​had​ ​been​ ​since​ ​he​ ​had​ ​learned​ ​how​ ​to​ ​smile.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​the​ ​promise​ ​of​ ​things​ ​to​ ​come  that​ ​lurked​ ​and​ ​darkened​ ​their​ ​mood.​ ​Elia​ ​didn’t​ ​even​ ​understand​ ​why.​ ​All​ ​that​ ​she​ ​had​ ​said​ ​was​ ​that​ ​it  was​ ​time.​ ​When​ ​he​ ​had​ ​asked​ ​what​ ​she​ ​meant,​ ​she​ ​simply​ ​ruffled​ ​his​ ​hair​ ​before​ ​she​ ​smiled​ ​down​ ​at  him​ ​and​ ​whispered​ ​that​ ​it​ ​was​ ​time​ ​for​ ​him​ ​to​ ​learn​ ​about​ ​his​ ​father.
His​ ​father.
His​ ​father​ ​whom​ ​they​ ​hadn’t​ ​spoken​ ​about​ ​because​ ​the​ ​one​ ​time​ ​he​ ​had​ ​asked,​ ​when​ ​he​ ​was​ ​so​ ​young​ ​he  hadn’t​ ​learned​ ​about​ ​emotional​ ​pain,​ ​he​ ​had​ ​learned​ ​to​ ​never​ ​ask​ ​again.​ ​Something​ ​had​ ​happened.  Something​ ​bad.​ ​Something​ ​that​ ​his​ ​mother​ ​had​ ​saved​ ​him​ ​from​ ​and​ ​still​ ​protected​ ​him​ ​from.​ ​If​ ​she​ ​was  afraid​ ​then​ ​it​ ​must​ ​have​ ​meant​ ​the​ ​worst.​ ​Maybe​ ​it​ ​was​ ​the​ ​reason​ ​that​ ​she​ ​feared​ ​the​ ​other​ ​wolves.  Maybe​ ​there​ ​were​ ​no​ ​other​ ​wolves​ ​anymore​ ​and​ ​it​ ​was​ ​only​ ​the​ ​reason​ ​that​ ​she​ ​feared…
He​ ​had​ ​never​ ​seen​ ​her​ ​change.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​know​ ​the​ ​color​ ​of​ ​her​ ​fur​ ​or​ ​how​ ​her​ ​eyes​ ​looked​ ​when​ ​they  filled​ ​with​ ​her​ ​spirit’s​ ​fire.​ ​He​ ​wished​ ​that​ ​he​ ​did.​ ​How​ ​could​ ​something​ ​that​ ​felt​ ​so​ ​good​ ​be​ ​frightening.  He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​run.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​feel​ ​the​ ​earth​ ​beneath​ ​his​ ​paws​ ​and​ ​know​ ​that​ ​he​ ​was​ ​a​ ​part​ ​of​ ​it.​ ​He  wanted​ ​to​ ​dance​ ​with​ ​the​ ​voices​ ​in​ ​the​ ​woods,​ ​feel​ ​their​ ​wild​ ​breath​ ​ruffle​ ​his​ ​fur.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​feel​ ​the  world​ ​as​ ​it​ ​unfurled​ ​before​ ​him,​ ​with​ ​his​ ​senses​ ​tuned.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​be​ ​free.
He​ ​blinked​ ​as​ ​his​ ​mother​ ​cleared​ ​his​ ​plate​ ​after​ ​smoothing​ ​her​ ​hand​ ​across​ ​his​ ​now​ ​dried​ ​hair.​ ​He  watched​ ​as​ ​she​ ​did​ ​the​ ​dishes​ ​and​ ​then​ ​turned,​ ​resting​ ​herself​ ​against​ ​the​ ​counter.
“Are​ ​you​ ​ready?”
He​ ​knew​ ​that​ ​she​ ​hoped​ ​that​ ​he​ ​would​ ​say​ ​no.​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​that​ ​she​ ​was​ ​really​ ​asking​ ​if​ ​she​ ​was​ ​ready​ ​and  he​ ​was​ ​simply​ ​there​ ​to​ ​witness​ ​her​ ​dilemma.​ ​He​ ​couldn’t​ ​do​ ​what​ ​she​ ​wanted…​ ​not​ ​this​ ​time.​ ​He​ ​needed  to​ ​know.​ ​He​ ​gently​ ​nodded,​ ​watching​ ​her​ ​reaction​ ​as​ ​she​ ​pushed​ ​herself​ ​off​ ​of​ ​the​ ​counter​ ​and​ ​into​ ​the  room.
“It’ll​ ​be​ ​okay,​ ​mom.”​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​that​ ​she​ ​wouldn’t​ ​believe​ ​him,​ ​but​ ​if​ ​it​ ​was​ ​her​ ​job​ ​to​ ​make​ ​him​ ​feel​ ​better  when​ ​it​ ​hurt,​ ​to​ ​give​ ​him​ ​answers​ ​and​ ​reassurances,​ ​than​ ​it​ ​was​ ​his​ ​to​ ​offer​ ​her​ ​comfort,​ ​even​ ​if​ ​she  didn’t​ ​believe​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​couldn’t​ ​help​ ​that.​ ​He​ ​couldn’t​ ​convince​ ​her​ ​that​ ​he​ ​knew​ ​that​ ​when​ ​he​ ​met​ ​the  being​ ​that​ ​owned​ ​that​ ​beautiful​ ​voice,​ ​the​ ​one​ ​that​ ​made​ ​him​ ​feel​ ​as​ ​though​ ​he​ ​weren’t​ ​so​ ​small​ ​and  alone,​ ​he​ ​would​ ​join​ ​with​ ​his​ ​guardian’s​ ​spirit​ ​instead​ ​of​ ​be​ ​consumed​ ​by​ ​it.​ ​Some​ ​part​ ​of​ ​him​ ​was​ ​sure  that​ ​her​ ​fears​ ​were​ ​unfounded​ ​while​ ​another​ ​trusted​ ​her​ ​judgement​ ​implicitly.
He​ ​got​ ​up​ ​and​ ​followed​ ​her​ ​into​ ​her​ ​room.​ ​She​ ​disappeared​ ​into​ ​a​ ​door​ ​he​ ​didn’t​ ​recall​ ​seeing​ ​opened​ ​at  any​ ​time​ ​before.​ ​The​ ​smell​ ​in​ ​there​ ​was​ ​different.​ ​He​ ​could​ ​just​ ​see​ ​the​ ​edge​ ​of​ ​colored​ ​fabric,​ ​a​ ​pale  blue,​ ​something​ ​soft.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​a​ ​color​ ​that​ ​he​ ​liked.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​have​ ​anything​ ​that​ ​was​ ​that​ ​color​ ​because  when​ ​he​ ​picked​ ​something​ ​out,​ ​his​ ​mom​ ​would​ ​smile​ ​and​ ​gently​ ​guide​ ​him​ ​to​ ​something​ ​else.​ ​Were​ ​those his​ ​father’s​ ​things?​ ​He​ ​had​ ​no​ ​point​ ​of​ ​reference.​ ​He​ ​tested​ ​the​ ​air,​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​memorize​ ​the​ ​smell.​ ​It​ ​was  just​ ​slightly​ ​different​ ​than​ ​his​ ​own.​ ​Perhaps​ ​that​ ​was​ ​just​ ​age.​ ​Perhaps​ ​it​ ​was​ ​just​ ​maturity​ ​that​ ​had been​ ​tempered​ ​with​ ​hints​ ​of​ ​dried​ ​leaves​ ​and​ ​a​ ​faint​ ​lingering​ ​dark​ ​musk.
He​ ​hadn’t​ ​realized​ ​that​ ​he​ ​had​ ​closed​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​until​ ​his​ ​mom​ ​had​ ​said​ ​his​ ​name.​ ​He​ ​blinked​ ​up​ ​at​ ​her​ ​and  smiled,​ ​which​ ​didn’t​ ​help​ ​the​ ​look​ ​of​ ​concern​ ​that​ ​took​ ​over​ ​the​ ​pout​ ​on​ ​her​ ​face.​ ​She​ ​held​ ​a​ ​box,​ ​an​ ​old  file​ ​box​ ​made​ ​of​ ​cardboard,​ ​that​ ​she​ ​gently​ ​pushed​ ​into​ ​his​ ​lap.
“What’s​ ​this?”​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​but​ ​asked​ ​anyway.​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​this​ ​was​ ​meant​ ​to​ ​prove​ ​something​ ​but​ ​couldn’t  understand​ ​quite​ ​what​ ​that​ ​was.​ ​He​ ​watched​ ​as​ ​she​ ​pursed​ ​her​ ​lips,​ ​frozen​ ​for​ ​a​ ​moment,​ ​before​ ​she  collected​ ​herself​ ​enough​ ​to​ ​sit​ ​beside​ ​him.
“It’s​ ​your​ ​father.”

*​ ​*​ ​*

He​ ​woke​ ​with​ ​a​ ​start.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​dozed​ ​off​ ​and​ ​slumped​ ​across​ ​his​ ​papers​ ​again.​ ​The​ ​file​ ​he​ ​had been​ ​looking​ ​in​ ​actively,​ ​dripped​ ​into​ ​his​ ​lap​ ​and​ ​then​ ​made​ ​its​ ​way​ ​to​ ​the​ ​floor​ ​in​ ​bits​ ​and pieces.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​still​ ​snowing​ ​outside.​ ​The​ ​only​ ​sound​ ​was​ ​the​ ​hush​ ​of​ ​winter​ ​punctuated​ ​by​ ​the pops​ ​and​ ​gurgles​ ​of​ ​the​ ​water​ ​in​ ​the​ ​pipes​ ​that​ ​heated​ ​the​ ​building.​ ​He’d​ ​been​ ​here​ ​more​ ​than he’d​ ​been​ ​in​ ​his​ ​own​ ​apartment.​ ​There​ ​was​ ​something​ ​different​ ​about​ ​this​ ​place.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​still horrible,​ ​but​ ​some​ ​part​ ​of​ ​it​ ​had​ ​become​ ​a​ ​comfort.
He​ ​was​ ​in​ ​the​ ​home​ ​stretch.​ ​They​ ​had​ ​thrown​ ​a​ ​rather​ ​uncomfortable​ ​retirement​ ​party​ ​for​ ​him at​ ​the​ ​office.​ ​It​ ​had​ ​felt​ ​so​ ​tense​ ​he​ ​could​ ​have​ ​cut​ ​the​ ​air​ ​in​ ​the​ ​room​ ​with​ ​the​ ​cake​ ​knife.​ ​It​ ​had been​ ​a​ ​long​ ​time​ ​since​ ​anyone​ ​had​ ​expressed​ ​any​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​empathy,​ ​friendship,​ ​with​ ​him​ ​in​ ​that room.​ ​They​ ​were​ ​all​ ​relieved​ ​that​ ​he​ ​would​ ​be​ ​gone​ ​though​ ​they​ ​knew,​ ​as​ ​a​ ​private​ ​detective, they​ ​would​ ​still​ ​occasionally​ ​have​ ​to​ ​deal​ ​with​ ​his​ ​relentlessness.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​received​ ​criticism​ ​for his​ ​inability​ ​to​ ​let​ ​go​ ​of​ ​the​ ​cases​ ​that​ ​he​ ​couldn’t​ ​solve,​ ​and​ ​then​ ​smug​ ​dismay​ ​when​ ​he​ ​did eventually​ ​solve​ ​them.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​found​ ​the​ ​other​ ​children​ ​who​ ​had​ ​been​ ​murdered​ ​before​ ​Elia had​ ​been​ ​taken.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​found​ ​them​ ​with​ ​instinct​ ​and​ ​luck,​ ​and​ ​he​ ​had​ ​brought​ ​their​ ​families closure.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​kept​ ​his​ ​word​ ​with​ ​not​ ​only​ ​this​ ​case,​ ​but​ ​others.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​looked​ ​for​ ​the​ ​answers while​ ​he​ ​sat​ ​in​ ​this​ ​very​ ​chair,​ ​in​ ​this​ ​very​ ​room,​ ​instead​ ​of​ ​in​ ​the​ ​office​ ​with​ ​his​ ​big​ ​empty​ ​desk that​ ​he​ ​was​ ​leaving​ ​within​ ​the​ ​week,​ ​or​ ​in​ ​the​ ​comfort​ ​of​ ​his​ ​own​ ​cozy​ ​apartment​ ​that​ ​was​ ​only good​ ​for​ ​collecting​ ​dust.
His​ ​gaze​ ​strayed​ ​to​ ​the​ ​boy​ ​who​ ​breathed​ ​quietly​ ​beside​ ​him.​ ​His​ ​eyes​ ​were​ ​open​ ​again.​ ​They were​ ​the​ ​same​ ​as​ ​they​ ​had​ ​been​ ​the​ ​first​ ​day​ ​he​ ​had​ ​seen​ ​him​ ​lying​ ​so​ ​flat​ ​upon​ ​the​ ​cold​ ​hard floor,​ ​so​ ​blue​ ​and​ ​big​ ​that​ ​it​ ​felt​ ​as​ ​though​ ​you​ ​were​ ​falling​ ​to​ ​look​ ​into​ ​them.​ ​Eyes​ ​like​ ​that never​ ​belonged​ ​to​ ​men.​ ​Eyes​ ​like​ ​that​ ​were​ ​those​ ​of​ ​a​ ​child,​ ​haunted​ ​by​ ​a​ ​pain​ ​they​ ​should never​ ​have​ ​known.​ ​He​ ​wondered​ ​briefly​ ​if​ ​their​ ​color​ ​would​ ​change​ ​when​ ​Elia​ ​woke,​ ​if​ ​Elia woke.​ ​The​ ​detective​ ​sighed.​ ​Gently​ ​he​ ​reached​ ​forward​ ​and​ ​closed​ ​them,​ ​spilling​ ​the​ ​remaining contents​ ​of​ ​his​ ​file​ ​upon​ ​the​ ​floor.​ ​It​ ​had​ ​been​ ​so​ ​long​ ​and​ ​there​ ​was​ ​no​ ​change.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​been​ ​a young​ ​man​ ​when​ ​he​ ​had​ ​walked​ ​into​ ​that​ ​place,​ ​filled​ ​with​ ​the​ ​smell​ ​of​ ​blood,​ ​cloaked​ ​in​ ​fear and​ ​pain,​ ​and​ ​found​ ​Elia.​ ​Each​ ​day​ ​since​ ​he​ ​had​ ​kept​ ​his​ ​word​ ​and​ ​returned​ ​to​ ​the​ ​boy​ ​who​ ​still slept​ ​before​ ​him.​ ​Each​ ​day​ ​he​ ​asked​ ​if​ ​Elia​ ​would​ ​come​ ​back,​ ​come​ ​home​ ​to​ ​his​ ​little​ ​self.​ ​He wondered​ ​why​ ​there​ ​was​ ​not​ ​a​ ​man​ ​in​ ​the​ ​bed​ ​before​ ​him,​ ​but​ ​still​ ​a​ ​child.​ ​After​ ​all​ ​this​ ​time, how​ ​had​ ​he​ ​remained​ ​so​ ​young?
He​ ​busied​ ​himself​ ​re-collecting​ ​the​ ​many​ ​papers​ ​that​ ​had​ ​scattered​ ​about​ ​the​ ​floor​ ​before​ ​he sat​ ​back​ ​in​ ​the​ ​chair​ ​to​ ​organize​ ​them.​ ​There​ ​was​ ​so​ ​much​ ​hurt​ ​in​ ​the​ ​world…​ ​so​ ​much​ ​pain.​ ​He didn’t​ ​understand​ ​why​ ​there​ ​were​ ​some​ ​that​ ​could​ ​only​ ​thrive​ ​on​ ​harm.​ ​What​ ​would​ ​their victims​ ​have​ ​been​ ​if​ ​they​ ​had​ ​never​ ​been​ ​victims.​ ​His​ ​fingers​ ​sifted​ ​through​ ​the​ ​papers,​ ​placing them​ ​in​ ​order,​ ​reattaching​ ​fallen​ ​photos​ ​into​ ​their​ ​clips​ ​and​ ​checking​ ​the​ ​little​ ​numbers​ ​at​ ​the bottoms​ ​of​ ​each​ ​carefully​ ​printed​ ​page.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​old​ ​fashioned.​ ​The​ ​laptop​ ​he​ ​had​ ​been​ ​provided with​ ​lay​ ​sleeping​ ​within​ ​the​ ​bag​ ​beside​ ​him.​ ​​ ​He​ ​still​ ​printed​ ​everything​ ​out,​ ​just​ ​the​ ​way​ ​that​ ​he had​ ​when​ ​he​ ​had​ ​taken​ ​on​ ​his​ ​first​ ​case.​ ​Back​ ​then,​ ​there​ ​had​ ​been​ ​no​ ​alternative.​ ​Now​ ​it​ ​was only​ ​he​ ​that​ ​scribbled​ ​notes​ ​onto​ ​the​ ​printed​ ​pages​ ​and​ ​scribbled​ ​more​ ​before​ ​he​ ​even​ ​thought to​ ​transfer​ ​anything​ ​into​ ​the​ ​sleeping​ ​bit​ ​of​ ​tech​ ​that​ ​only​ ​hurt​ ​his​ ​eyes.
He​ ​gently​ ​closed​ ​the​ ​file​ ​and​ ​smoothed​ ​it​ ​with​ ​his​ ​fingers.​ ​It​ ​would​ ​be​ ​good​ ​to​ ​offer​ ​his​ ​services to​ ​the​ ​public.​ ​He​ ​could​ ​actually​ ​help​ ​people​ ​find​ ​things​ ​that​ ​they​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​find,​ ​instead​ ​of​ ​only deliver​ ​bad​ ​news.​ ​The​ ​change​ ​of​ ​pace​ ​would​ ​give​ ​him​ ​some​ ​happy​ ​stories​ ​to​ ​tell​ ​the​ ​one​ ​in​ ​the bed​ ​beside​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​allowed​ ​one​ ​of​ ​his​ ​lips​ ​to​ ​quirk​ ​up.​ ​Elia​ ​had​ ​been​ ​the​ ​only​ ​one​ ​who​ ​had listened,​ ​who​ ​had​ ​let​ ​him​ ​talk​ ​through​ ​his​ ​thoughts​ ​on​ ​cases.​ ​He​ ​felt​ ​they​ ​had​ ​solved​ ​most​ ​of them​ ​together.​ ​He​ ​wished​ ​that​ ​he​ ​could​ ​say​ ​thank​ ​you​ ​instead​ ​of​ ​just​ ​stand​ ​watch.​ ​Elia​ ​had been​ ​his​ ​sounding​ ​board,​ ​no​ ​matter​ ​how​ ​crazy​ ​the​ ​idea,​ ​and​ ​never​ ​offered​ ​negativity,​ ​which​ ​is why​ ​he​ ​had​ ​been​ ​able​ ​to​ ​explore​ ​every​ ​outcome​ ​and​ ​find​ ​the​ ​best​ ​way​ ​to​ ​uncover​ ​every​ ​piece of​ ​whatever​ ​case​ ​he​ ​was​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​solve.​ ​His​ ​career​ ​had​ ​been​ ​made​ ​in​ ​the​ ​many​ ​moments​ ​they had​ ​shared.
“Elia,​ ​I​ ​wish​ ​you​ ​knew​ ​how​ ​glad​ ​I​ ​am​ ​that​ ​you​ ​are​ ​here.​ ​I​ ​wish​ ​that​ ​you​ ​could​ ​talk​ ​to​ ​me.​ ​I​ ​wish that​ ​you​ ​would​ ​come​ ​back.​ ​Elia,​ ​you​ ​will​ ​come​ ​back,​ ​right?​ ​I​ ​have​ ​so​ ​much​ ​to​ ​tell​ ​you…”
He​ ​scrubbed​ ​his​ ​face​ ​with​ ​his​ ​hand​ ​before​ ​letting​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​stray​ ​back​ ​to​ ​the​ ​winter​ ​scene outside.​ ​The​ ​wind​ ​gusted​ ​which​ ​made​ ​the​ ​detective​ ​shiver,​ ​even​ ​though​ ​it​ ​did​ ​not​ ​touch​ ​him. The​ ​walk​ ​to​ ​his​ ​car​ ​was​ ​going​ ​to​ ​be​ ​painful,​ ​and​ ​the​ ​drive​ ​even​ ​worse.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​worth​ ​it.​ ​For​ ​this peace​ ​and​ ​quite,​ ​worth​ ​it.​ ​Slowly​ ​he​ ​turned​ ​back​ ​to​ ​the​ ​one​ ​beside​ ​him.​ ​Once​ ​more…​ ​his​ ​eyes were​ ​open.

*​ ​*​ ​*

His​ ​heart​ ​was​ ​pounding.​ ​He​ ​wouldn’t​ ​believe​ ​it,​ ​couldn’t.​ ​His​ ​feet​ ​wouldn’t​ ​carry​ ​him​ ​fast​ ​enough.​ ​The  wind​ ​bit​ ​his​ ​face​ ​and​ ​made​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​water.​ ​It​ ​wasn’t​ ​true.​ ​It​ ​couldn’t​ ​be​ ​true.
He​ ​needed​ ​to​ ​get​ ​to​ ​the​ ​woods.​ ​There​ ​he​ ​would​ ​find​ ​answers.​ ​If​ ​only​ ​he​ ​could​ ​change,​ ​then​ ​he​ ​would​ ​be  able​ ​to​ ​run​ ​faster.​ ​His​ ​vision​ ​blurred​ ​as​ ​he​ ​ducked​ ​behind​ ​a​ ​bush,​ ​hoping​ ​to​ ​avoid​ ​the​ ​headlights​ ​of​ ​a​ ​car  that​ ​had​ ​just​ ​turned​ ​down​ ​the​ ​street.​ ​He​ ​needed​ ​to​ ​know​ ​for​ ​sure.​ ​He​ ​needed​ ​answers​ ​his​ ​mother​ ​just  couldn’t​ ​give​ ​him.
The​ ​box​ ​had​ ​been​ ​placed​ ​in​ ​his​ ​lap​ ​and​ ​he​ ​had​ ​looked​ ​at​ ​her​ ​with​ ​no​ ​small​ ​amount​ ​of​ ​confusion.​ ​When  she​ ​told​ ​him​ ​to​ ​open​ ​it,​ ​his​ ​fingers​ ​had​ ​gently​ ​trailed​ ​across​ ​the​ ​cardboard​ ​before​ ​removing​ ​the​ ​lid.​ ​It​ ​felt  fragile,​ ​like​ ​it​ ​was​ ​made​ ​of​ ​pressed​ ​onion​ ​skin​ ​instead​ ​of​ ​tree​ ​pulp.​ ​It​ ​didn’t​ ​smell​ ​musty​ ​or​ ​like​ ​it​ ​was  dusty​ ​or​ ​wet,​ ​it​ ​just​ ​felt​ ​as​ ​though​ ​the​ ​contents​ ​had​ ​aged​ ​the​ ​thing​ ​well​ ​beyond​ ​its​ ​years.
With​ ​the​ ​lid​ ​removed,​ ​Elia​ ​found​ ​papers.​ ​Once​ ​more​ ​he​ ​gave​ ​his​ ​mom​ ​a​ ​sidelong​ ​glance.​ ​She​ ​nodded​ ​for him​ ​to​ ​continue​ ​even​ ​as​ ​tears​ ​filled​ ​her​ ​eyes.​ ​Elia​ ​picked​ ​the​ ​first​ ​piece​ ​up​ ​and​ ​opened​ ​it.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​a​ ​letter,  a​ ​letter​ ​in​ ​writing​ ​that​ ​was​ ​similar​ ​to​ ​his​ ​own,​ ​perhaps​ ​more​ ​refined​ ​but​ ​similar.​ ​How​ ​could​ ​he​ ​have known​ ​that​ ​he​ ​wrote​ ​the​ ​way​ ​his​ ​father​ ​had.​ ​His​ ​fingers​ ​traced​ ​the​ ​faded​ ​ink​ ​impressions​ ​on​ ​the​ ​page in​ ​wonder,​ ​before​ ​he​ ​even​ ​realized​ ​that​ ​he​ ​could​ ​read​ ​them.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​a​ ​letter…​ ​to​ ​his​ ​mom.​ ​It​ ​made​ ​him  smile.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​a​ ​love​ ​letter​ ​and​ ​more​ ​than​ ​half​ ​of​ ​it​ ​was​ ​written​ ​in​ ​verse.​ Never​ forget​ ,​ ​Elia​ ​read​ ​more  than​ ​a​ ​few​ ​times​ ​throughout​ ​the​ ​passages.​ ​He​ ​spoke​ ​as​ ​though​ ​he​ ​knew​ ​he​ ​would​ ​not​ ​survive.​ ​​ Never  forget​ ​ how​ ​ much ​ ​I​ ​ love​ ​ you. ​ ​ Never​ ​ forget​ ​ that ​ ​I​ ​ will​ ​ be​ ​ waiting. ​ ​​ Elia​ ​heard​ ​his​ ​mom’s​ ​breath​ ​hitch.  What​ ​had​ ​happened​ ​to​ ​him?​ ​Why​ ​wasn’t​ ​he​ ​here​ ​any​ ​longer?
There​ ​were​ ​more.​ ​So​ ​many​ ​letters.​ ​If​ ​they​ ​had​ ​been​ ​together,​ ​why​ ​had​ ​he​ ​written​ ​so​ ​much?​ ​He​ ​was  afraid​ ​to​ ​ask.​ ​They​ ​had​ ​been​ ​together​ ​for​ ​some​ ​of​ ​the​ ​time​ ​or​ ​he​ ​wouldn’t​ ​exist.​ ​Then​ ​he’d​ ​blurted​ ​it​ ​out  and​ ​regretted​ ​it​ ​the​ ​instant​ ​that​ ​he​ ​did.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​know​ ​but​ ​he​ ​didn’t​ ​want​ ​to​ ​cause​ ​her​ ​any​ ​more  pain​ ​than​ ​he​ ​already​ ​had.
They​ ​had​ ​been​ ​chased.​ ​His​ ​mother​ ​had​ ​told​ ​him​ ​they​ ​were​ ​hiding​ ​because​ ​of​ ​the​ ​wolves.​ ​Now​ ​she  explained​ ​that​ ​it​ ​was​ ​because​ ​of​ ​four​ ​wolves​ ​that​ ​were​ ​no​ ​longer​ ​wolfen,​ ​but​ ​had​ ​turned​ ​to​ ​demons because​ ​of​ ​tainted​ ​blood​ ​they​ ​had​ ​consumed.​ ​One​ ​of​ ​them​ ​was​ ​to​ ​blame​ ​for​ ​the​ ​curse​ ​on​ ​the​ ​Darkstar  family​ ​line,​ ​and​ ​one​ ​of​ ​them​ ​had​ ​been​ ​responsible​ ​for​ ​their​ ​separation.​ ​Elia’s​ ​father​ ​had​ ​gone​ ​to​ ​draw them​ ​away​ ​and​ ​been​ ​cornered.​ ​He​ ​escaped,​ ​narrowly,​ ​but​ ​was​ ​never​ ​the​ ​same​ ​again.​ ​His​ ​mind​ ​was different.​ ​She​ ​couldn’t​ ​reach​ ​him​ ​anymore.​ ​She​ ​couldn’t​ ​feel​ ​him​ ​through​ ​their​ ​bond​ ​anymore.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​as  though​ ​something​ ​had​ ​stolen​ ​his​ ​soul​ ​from​ ​him​ ​and​ ​left​ ​only​ ​the​ ​shell​ ​behind.​ ​Then​ ​he​ ​began​ ​to​ ​wither  until​ ​there​ ​was​ ​nothing​ ​left​ ​at​ ​all.
She​ ​reached​ ​into​ ​the​ ​box​ ​and​ ​found​ ​a​ ​sketchbook​ ​that​ ​had​ ​pages​ ​which​ ​had​ ​been​ ​worn​ ​soft​ ​at​ ​the​ ​edges. When​ ​she​ ​opened​ ​it,​ ​Elia’s​ ​eyes​ ​went​ ​wide.​ ​All​ ​the​ ​pages​ ​held​ ​one​ ​thing,​ ​a​ ​face,​ ​beautiful​ ​and  frightening​ ​and​ ​so​ ​very​ ​familiar.​ ​When​ ​his​ ​mom​ ​had​ ​turned​ ​away​ ​and​ ​covered​ ​her​ ​face​ ​with​ ​her​ ​hands,  his​ ​fingers​ ​strayed​ ​to​ ​the​ ​worn​ ​paper​ ​and​ ​ran​ ​across​ ​its​ ​surface,​ ​tracing​ ​lines​ ​he​ ​had​ ​drawn​ ​himself.​ ​It  was​ ​unmistakably​ ​the​ ​same.​ ​Then​ ​she​ ​turned​ ​back​ ​and​ ​stole​ ​it​ ​from​ ​his​ ​fingers.
That​ ​was​ ​the​ ​reason​ ​his​ ​father​ ​had​ ​wasted​ ​away.​ ​That​ ​thing​ ​had​ ​stolen​ ​his​ ​soul.​ ​That​ ​thing​ ​was​ ​a​ ​curse  on​ ​his​ ​family​ ​line​ ​and​ ​one​ ​day​ ​would​ ​come​ ​to​ ​him,​ ​would​ ​come​ ​to​ ​do​ ​the​ ​same.​ ​There​ ​were​ ​no​ ​guardians  any​ ​longer,​ ​only​ ​nightmares​ ​that​ ​lived​ ​in​ ​the​ ​forest​ ​and​ ​called​ ​with​ ​honeyed​ ​tongues.​ ​Why?​ ​Why​ ​did​ ​it  feel​ ​so​ ​different​ ​if​ ​that​ ​was​ ​how​ ​it​ ​was?​ ​It​ ​felt​ ​more​ ​right​ ​than​ ​his​ ​own​ ​skin,​ ​as​ ​natural​ ​as​ ​it​ ​would feel​ ​to​ ​embrace​ ​the​ ​change.​ ​Why​ ​was​ ​it​ ​a​ ​curse​ ​if​ ​it​ ​felt​ ​so​ ​right?
He​ ​was​ ​up​ ​and​ ​running​ ​scrambling​ ​for​ ​the​ ​treeline​ ​before​ ​the​ ​car​ ​had​ ​completely​ ​passed.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​just​ ​at  the​ ​far​ ​side​ ​of​ ​the​ ​park.​ ​He​ ​just​ ​had​ ​to​ ​make​ ​it​ ​past.​ ​How​ ​ironic​ ​was​ ​it​ ​that​ ​he​ ​had​ ​to​ ​go​ ​through​ ​there,  a​ ​place​ ​that​ ​was​ ​joyless​ ​to​ ​him,​ ​to​ ​get​ ​to​ ​where​ ​he​ ​most​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​be.​ ​He​ ​wiped​ ​at​ ​a​ ​tickle​ ​upon​ ​his​ ​cheek  as​ ​the​ ​drawn​ ​image​ ​once​ ​more​ ​flashed​ ​into​ ​his​ ​mind.​ ​He​ ​looked​ ​down​ ​to​ ​see​ ​a​ ​tear,​ ​wet​ ​upon​ ​his​ ​fingers.  He​ ​slowed.​ ​Why​ ​did​ ​it​ ​hurt​ ​so​ ​much?​ ​If​ ​there​ ​was​ ​no​ ​way​ ​that​ ​it​ ​could​ ​be​ ​true,​ ​why​ ​did​ ​he​ ​feel  betrayed?​ ​He​ ​had​ ​to​ ​know.
He​ ​was​ ​right​ ​at​ ​the​ ​edge​ ​of​ ​the​ ​treeline.​ ​He​ ​could​ ​feel​ ​the​ ​temperature​ ​change​ ​in​ ​the​ ​ground​ ​beneath​ ​his  feet.​ ​A​ ​few​ ​more​ ​steps​ ​and​ ​he​ ​would​ ​know.​ ​His​ ​breaths​ ​came​ ​in​ ​sharp​ ​gasps.​ ​He​ ​closed​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​as​ ​he  began​ ​to​ ​hear​ ​the​ ​whispers​ ​that​ ​emerged​ ​from​ ​the​ ​forest.​ ​The​ ​wind​ ​sang​ ​a​ ​lullaby​ ​as​ ​the​ ​trees​ ​welcomed  him,​ ​the​ ​breeze​ ​sighing​ ​and​ ​turning​ ​to​ ​soft​ ​words,​ ​then​ ​to​ ​his​ ​name.​ ​The​ ​forest​ ​would​ ​always​ ​know​ ​him. He​ ​tuned,​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​understand​ ​what​ ​they​ ​said.​ ​A​ ​warning.​ ​All​ ​at​ ​once​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​snapped​ ​open.​ ​They​ ​told him​ ​to​ ​run.​ ​Over​ ​and​ ​over,​ ​​ Elia​ ​ run​ .
A​ ​strong​ ​arm​ ​clamped​ ​across​ ​his​ ​chest​ ​before​ ​his​ ​feet​ ​could​ ​move​ ​and​ ​something​ ​soft​ ​was​ ​held​ ​over​ ​his  mouth​ ​and​ ​nose​ ​as​ ​he​ ​tried​ ​to​ ​wriggle​ ​free.​ ​It​ ​smelled​ ​sweet​ ​and​ ​acrid,​ ​unnatural.​ ​His​ ​body​ ​was​ ​failing,  his​ ​eyes​ ​staring​ ​into​ ​the​ ​woods​ ​as​ ​he​ ​couldn’t​ ​resist​ ​the​ ​strength​ ​of​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​held​ ​him.​ ​There​ ​before  him,​ ​like​ ​a​ ​ghost​ ​among​ ​the​ ​trees​ ​was​ ​the​ ​face​ ​he​ ​had​ ​drawn,​ ​his​ ​father​ ​had​ ​drawn,​ ​the​ ​eyes,​ ​and​ ​then  the​ ​name​ ​as​ ​the​ ​darkness​ ​overtook​ ​him.

*​ ​*​ ​*

He​ ​had​ ​felt​ ​a​ ​little​ ​bit​ ​silly​ ​when​ ​he​ ​had​ ​been​ ​out.​ ​It​ ​had​ ​made​ ​him​ ​late,​ ​but​ ​now​ ​it​ ​was​ ​worth​ ​it. Elia​ ​needed​ ​clothes.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​known​ ​the​ ​boy​ ​for​ ​longer​ ​than​ ​any​ ​other​ ​person​ ​alive.​ ​This​ ​person who​ ​was​ ​trapped​ ​as​ ​a​ ​child​ ​at​ ​least​ ​deserved​ ​the​ ​dignity​ ​of​ ​dressing​ ​in​ ​something​ ​more​ ​than​ ​a hospital​ ​gown​ ​for​ ​his​ ​entire​ ​life.​ ​It​ ​had​ ​been​ ​nearly​ ​thirty​ ​years​ ​since​ ​that​ ​dark​ ​and​ ​horrible night,​ ​almost​ ​long​ ​enough​ ​to​ ​forget,​ ​and​ ​all​ ​that​ ​he​ ​could​ ​remember​ ​seeing​ ​clothe​ ​this​ ​small person,​ ​whom​ ​he​ ​cared​ ​for​ ​very​ ​deeply,​ ​was​ ​a​ ​hospital​ ​gown…​ ​unacceptable.​ ​It​ ​went​ ​round and​ ​round​ ​in​ ​his​ ​mind​ ​as​ ​he​ ​set​ ​the​ ​small​ ​things​ ​out​ ​on​ ​display​ ​for​ ​the​ ​nurse,​ ​who​ ​had accompanied​ ​him,​ ​to​ ​see.
“I​ ​had​ ​no​ ​idea​ ​what​ ​he​ ​might​ ​like,​ ​so​ ​I​ ​got​ ​him​ ​a​ ​bunch​ ​of​ ​things.​ ​Now​ ​you​ ​can​ ​just​ ​pick​ ​through. I​ ​hope​ ​he​ ​likes​ ​it…​ ​any​ ​of​ ​it.​ ​I’ve​ ​never​ ​seen​ ​him​ ​dressed​ ​in​ ​real​ ​clothes​ ​before.”​ ​He​ ​was​ ​second guessing​ ​himself​ ​before​ ​he​ ​even​ ​got​ ​a​ ​start​ ​picking​ ​an​ ​outfit.​ ​“Do​ ​you​ ​think​ ​you​ ​could​ ​get​ ​him dressed​ ​before​ ​I​ ​take​ ​him​ ​out​ ​for​ ​our​ ​walk​ ​while​ ​I​ ​get​ ​the​ ​wheelchair?”
He​ ​didn’t​ ​really​ ​give​ ​the​ ​girl​ ​a​ ​chance​ ​to​ ​argue​ ​before​ ​he​ ​left​ ​the​ ​room.​ ​Elia​ ​would​ ​be​ ​dressed when​ ​he​ ​returned…​ ​or​ ​not.​ ​He​ ​would​ ​jump​ ​that​ ​hurdle​ ​when​ ​he​ ​came​ ​to​ ​it.​ ​His​ ​shoes​ ​tapped on​ ​the​ ​linoleum​ ​and​ ​only​ ​quieted​ ​when​ ​he​ ​paused​ ​before​ ​what​ ​appeared​ ​to​ ​be​ ​a​ ​closet.​ ​He hoped​ ​the​ ​door​ ​was​ ​unlocked​ ​and​ ​tested​ ​the​ ​knob​ ​before​ ​letting​ ​himself​ ​into​ ​the​ ​darkened portal.
Green,​ ​where​ ​was​ ​it?​ ​There​ ​was​ ​one​ ​that​ ​was​ ​smaller​ ​than​ ​the​ ​rest​ ​and​ ​had​ ​a​ ​green​ ​seat​ ​and rest.​ ​It​ ​had​ ​crocheted​ ​pads​ ​on​ ​the​ ​foot​ ​rests​ ​that​ ​matched​ ​the​ ​blanket​ ​that​ ​was​ ​at​ ​the​ ​foot​ ​of Elia’s​ ​bed.​ ​He​ ​scanned​ ​the​ ​row​ ​of​ ​folded​ ​wheelchairs​ ​twice​ ​before​ ​he​ ​spotted​ ​it​ ​on​ ​the​ ​far​ ​side of​ ​the​ ​dimmed​ ​room.​ ​He​ ​tested​ ​the​ ​knob​ ​before​ ​he​ ​went​ ​for​ ​it,​ ​afraid​ ​he​ ​would​ ​be​ ​locked​ ​inside and​ ​forgotten​ ​if​ ​he​ ​didn’t,​ ​before​ ​he​ ​was​ ​plunged​ ​into​ ​complete​ ​darkness.​ ​He​ ​blinked​ ​as​ ​the soft​ ​greys​ ​came​ ​into​ ​focus​ ​first,​ ​then​ ​the​ ​shadows​ ​of​ ​the​ ​place​ ​stood​ ​back​ ​from​ ​those​ ​in​ ​slightly darker​ ​contrast.​ ​The​ ​only​ ​light​ ​source​ ​was​ ​the​ ​small​ ​window​ ​on​ ​the​ ​door.​ ​He​ ​reached​ ​and​ ​gently pulled​ ​the​ ​wheelchair​ ​out​ ​from​ ​the​ ​others.​ ​Someday,​ ​hopefully​ ​someday​ ​soon,​ ​Elia​ ​would​ ​walk beside​ ​him​ ​instead​ ​of​ ​requiring​ ​this​ ​thing.​ ​For​ ​now…​ ​It​ ​worked.​ ​They​ ​would​ ​go​ ​for​ ​a​ ​walk together​ ​and​ ​he​ ​wouldn’t​ ​have​ ​to​ ​worry​ ​about​ ​Elia​ ​getting​ ​cold.
A​ ​shadow​ ​obscured​ ​the​ ​light​ ​as​ ​he​ ​turned​ ​and​ ​he​ ​froze​ ​as​ ​he​ ​found​ ​his​ ​exit​ ​blocked.​ ​Eyes​ ​of​ ​icy fire​ ​watched​ ​as​ ​he​ ​slowly​ ​straightened​ ​and​ ​swallowed​ ​hard.​ ​In​ ​the​ ​darkness​ ​like​ ​this,​ ​the​ ​scars on​ ​his​ ​face​ ​and​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​illuminated​ ​the​ ​gentle​ ​curves​ ​of​ ​his​ ​face.​ ​Something​ ​so​ ​beautiful​ ​should not​ ​cause​ ​such​ ​repulsion.​ ​This​ ​creature​ ​had​ ​said​ ​it​ ​was​ ​an​ ​angry​ ​soul,​ ​but​ ​for​ ​once,​ ​the​ ​detective wondered​ ​why just​ ​as​ ​he​ ​wondered​ ​what​ ​had​ ​happened​ ​in​ ​that​ ​room​ ​full​ ​of​ ​blood.​ ​Now​ ​he tried​ ​to​ ​fit​ ​the​ ​pieces​ ​that​ ​he​ ​knew​ ​together​ ​and​ ​he​ ​still​ ​didn’t​ ​have​ ​enough.
“You​ ​have​ ​done​ ​well.​ ​Soon​ ​things​ ​will​ ​change.”​ ​His​ ​voice​ ​was​ ​soft,​ ​only​ ​a​ ​whisper​ ​in​ ​the darkness.
“Change?​ ​You​ ​mean,​ ​he’s​ ​going​ ​to​ ​wake​ ​up?”
The​ ​creature​ ​before​ ​him​ ​nodded​ ​then​ ​took​ ​a​ ​step​ ​towards​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​became​ ​immediately​ ​aware of​ ​how​ ​small​ ​the​ ​room​ ​was.​ ​His​ ​breath​ ​froze​ ​in​ ​his​ ​lungs​ ​as​ ​delicate​ ​fingers​ ​smoothed​ ​along​ ​his throat.
“Bring​ ​him​ ​back​ ​to​ ​where​ ​it​ ​all​ ​began.​ ​Bring​ ​him​ ​back.”
The​ ​detective’s​ ​brows​ ​shot​ ​up​ ​as​ ​a​ ​horrified​ ​expression​ ​gripped​ ​his​ ​features.​ ​He​ ​never​ ​wanted to​ ​see​ ​that​ ​place​ ​again.​ ​He​ ​still​ ​had​ ​nightmares.​ ​Twisted​ ​bodies​ ​with​ ​outstretched​ ​hands, reaching​ ​as​ ​though​ ​they​ ​waited​ ​to​ ​be​ ​saved​ ​and​ ​died,​ ​frozen​ ​in​ ​a​ ​state​ ​of​ ​false​ ​hope.​ ​The shattered​ ​body​ ​of​ ​a​ ​woman​ ​who​ ​was​ ​missing​ ​half​ ​her​ ​face.​ ​Parts​ ​of​ ​a​ ​man​ ​that​ ​were​ ​spread​ ​as though​ ​he​ ​had​ ​been​ ​ripped​ ​apart​ ​from​ ​the​ ​inside​ ​out,​ ​and​ ​Elia​ ​at​ ​the​ ​center,​ ​made​ ​androgynous by​ ​his​ ​captor,​ ​staring,​ ​empty,​ ​his​ ​body​ ​just​ ​as​ ​used​ ​and​ ​broken​ ​as​ ​all​ ​the​ ​rest,​ ​but​ ​he​ ​had remained​ ​alive.
“I​ ​don’t​ ​want​ ​to​ ​go​ ​back​ ​there.​ ​Don’t​ ​make​ ​me​ ​bring​ ​him.​ ​I​ ​want​ ​him​ ​to​ ​be​ ​happy,​ ​not​ ​like​ ​them, not​ ​like​ ​that.​ ​He’s…​ ​he’s​ ​my​ ​only​ ​friend.​ ​I​ ​don’t​ ​want​ ​him​ ​to​ ​hurt​ ​anymore.”
The​ ​detective​ ​had​ ​begun​ ​to​ ​shake​ ​as​ ​the​ ​creature​ ​smoothed​ ​tears​ ​away​ ​from​ ​his​ ​cheeks.​ ​Now hands​ ​that​ ​surely​ ​must​ ​have​ ​caused​ ​so​ ​much​ ​pain​ ​to​ ​others,​ ​collected​ ​him​ ​gently​ ​and​ ​he​ ​found himself​ ​held.​ ​It​ ​shouldn’t​ ​have​ ​been​ ​comfortable​ ​but​ ​it​ ​was​ ​a​ ​comfort.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​like​ ​being​ ​gripped by​ ​a​ ​nightmare​ ​that​ ​was​ ​so​ ​familiar,​ ​that​ ​its​ ​terror​ ​brought​ ​peace.​ ​He​ ​could​ ​smell​ ​blood​ ​on​ ​the clothes​ ​he​ ​was​ ​held​ ​against,​ ​and​ ​oak​ ​leaves,​ ​long​ ​dried​ ​and​ ​withered.​ ​This​ ​was​ ​not​ ​the​ ​way​ ​of things.​ ​Something​ ​had​ ​changed.​ ​Some​ ​part​ ​of​ ​his​ ​plea​ ​had​ ​meant​ ​something,​ ​his​ ​fear.​ ​He​ ​took​ ​a breath​ ​and​ ​closed​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​as​ ​deadly​ ​fingers​ ​combed​ ​through​ ​his​ ​hair.
“You​ ​dear​ ​old​ ​man.​ ​I​ ​meant​ ​the​ ​woods.”

*​ ​*​ ​*

His​ ​head​ ​swam​ ​as​ ​he​ ​fought​ ​against​ ​the​ ​darkness.​ ​Slowly,​ ​so​ ​slowly​ ​he​ ​became​ ​aware​ ​of​ ​little​ ​things.​ ​His  body​ ​lay​ ​on​ ​something​ ​hard,​ ​a​ ​table,​ ​perhaps​ ​the​ ​floor.​ ​The​ ​air​ ​was​ ​chilled.​ ​There​ ​was​ ​a​ ​ringing​ ​in​ ​his  ears…​ ​wait,​ ​that​ ​was​ ​wrong.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​screaming.
His​ ​mouth​ ​was​ ​dry​ ​and​ ​he​ ​tried​ ​to​ ​lick​ ​his​ ​lips.​ ​Why​ ​did​ ​he​ ​feel​ ​so​ ​sluggish?​ ​How​ ​had​ ​he​ ​come​ ​to​ ​be  laying​ ​against​ ​the​ ​hardness​ ​that​ ​was​ ​beneath​ ​him.​ ​It​ ​sounded​ ​like​ ​there​ ​were​ ​so​ ​many​ ​people​ ​in​ ​the  room.​ ​Was​ ​he​ ​laying​ ​in​ ​the​ ​road?​ ​Had​ ​he​ ​been​ ​at​ ​the​ ​park​ ​again?​ ​This​ ​was​ ​worse​ ​than​ ​the​ ​last​ ​time.  Usually​ ​they​ ​only​ ​hit​ ​him.​ ​It​ ​wasn’t​ ​like​ ​this​ ​where​ ​they​ ​knocked​ ​him​ ​unconscious.​ ​Something​ ​was  wrong.​ ​Why​ ​couldn’t​ ​he​ ​make​ ​his​ ​limbs​ ​work.​ ​His​ ​mom​ ​would​ ​be​ ​worried.​ ​Usually​ ​she​ ​would​ ​call​ ​for him.​ ​Maybe​ ​she​ ​was​ ​and​ ​he​ ​couldn’t​ ​hear​ ​it​ ​over​ ​the​ ​screaming.​ ​What​ ​were​ ​they​ ​saying.​ ​He​ ​recalled​ ​the last​ ​thing​ ​he​ ​had​ ​heard.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​been​ ​at​ ​the​ ​treeline​ ​and​ ​it​ ​was​ ​night​ ​time.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​heard​ ​them,​ ​the voices​ ​as​ ​soft​ ​as​ ​the​ ​wind,​ ​soothing,​ ​calming.​ ​Run!​ ​Now​ ​they​ ​were​ ​screaming,​ ​muffled,​ ​as​ ​though​ ​the  were​ ​restrained​ ​by​ ​a​ ​force,​ ​unable​ ​to​ ​break​ ​through.
“You​ ​are​ ​so​ ​beautiful,​ ​little​ ​one.​ ​Can​ ​you​ ​open​ ​your​ ​eyes?​ ​I​ ​know​ ​you​ ​can​ ​hear​ ​me.”
Elia’s​ ​brow​ ​furrowed.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​know​ ​that​ ​voice.​ ​It​ ​had​ ​been​ ​quiet​ ​compared​ ​to​ ​the​ ​screaming​ ​but​ ​he​ ​had  heard​ ​it​ ​anyway.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​want​ ​to​ ​be​ ​with​ ​this​ ​person.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​know​ ​who​ ​they​ ​were.​ ​Why​ ​was​ ​it​ ​so  quiet​ ​and​ ​so​ ​loud​ ​all​ ​at​ ​once?​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​run​ ​but​ ​his​ ​legs​ ​wouldn’t​ ​move.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​sit​ ​up,​ ​to  crawl​ ​away​ ​but​ ​his​ ​body​ ​had​ ​betrayed​ ​him​ ​and​ ​lay​ ​still​ ​upon​ ​the​ ​hardness​ ​beneath​ ​him.​ ​​ ​He​ ​took​ ​a  shuddering​ ​breath,​ ​the​ ​only​ ​thing​ ​that​ ​he​ ​could​ ​do.​ ​Breathe.​ ​He​ ​tried​ ​to​ ​hear​ ​one​ ​voice​ ​in​ ​the​ ​screaming.  He​ ​tried​ ​to​ ​hear​ ​anything​ ​of​ ​what​ ​they​ ​said.​ ​​
Bad​ ​ place! ​ ​ Bad ​ ​ place!​ ​ Pain!​ ​ Hurts! ​ ​ Get​ ​ up!​ ​ Get​ ​ up​ ​ Elia!
It​ ​came​ ​clear​ ​just​ ​before​ ​he​ ​felt​ ​hands​ ​upon​ ​him​ ​and​ ​the​ ​screaming​ ​became​ ​a​ ​ringing​​​ ​in​ ​his​ ​ears.​ ​All  that​ ​they​ ​did​ ​was​ ​brush​ ​his​ ​hair​ ​from​ ​his​ ​face.​ ​He​ ​felt​ ​eyes​ ​upon​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​tried​ ​to​ ​speak​ ​but​ ​could​ ​only  manage​ ​a​ ​small​ ​sound​ ​of​ ​distress.​ ​Why​ ​did​ ​he​ ​feel​ ​like​ ​this?​ ​Why​ ​couldn’t​ ​he​ ​move?​ ​His​ ​heart​ ​began​ ​to  race​ ​as​ ​he​ ​felt​ ​the​ ​hands​ ​shift.
“How​ ​old​ ​are​ ​you,​ ​my​ ​sweet?​ ​You​ ​can’t​ ​be​ ​more​ ​than​ ​twelve.​ ​You’re​ ​perfect.​ ​Will​ ​you​ ​open​ ​your​ ​eyes like​ ​a​ ​good​ ​girl?​ ​I​ ​want​ ​to​ ​see​ ​the​ ​color.​ ​It’s​ ​okay,​ ​honey.​ ​You​ ​won’t​ ​feel​ ​a​ ​thing​ ​and​ ​it​ ​will​ ​all​ ​be​ ​over soon.”
He​ ​couldn’t​ ​help​ ​himself.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​not​ ​a​ ​girl!​ ​He​ ​was​ ​nearly​ ​fourteen!​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​move!​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to  run​ ​to​ ​where​ ​the​ ​voices​ ​were.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​say​ ​the​ ​name​ ​of​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​would​ ​make​ ​this​ ​all​ ​go​ ​away,  but​ ​his​ ​mouth​ ​refused​ ​to​ ​do​ ​anything​ ​so​ ​all​ ​he​ ​could​ ​do​ ​was​ ​whimper.​ ​The​ ​man​ ​before​ ​him​ ​was​ ​pale,​ ​too  pale,​ ​with​ ​a​ ​curtain​ ​of​ ​hair​ ​that​ ​fell​ ​like​ ​cobwebs,​ ​a​ ​mix​ ​of​ ​blond​ ​and​ ​white,​ ​into​ ​his​ ​eyes.​ ​His​ ​shirt​ ​was  untucked,​ ​unbuttoned,​ ​his​ ​pants​ ​were​ ​open,​ ​and​ ​in​ ​that​ ​instant​ ​Elia​ ​wished​ ​he’d​ ​never​ ​opened​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​at all.​ ​Why​ ​would​ ​someone​ ​like​ ​that​ ​expose​ ​himself​ ​to​ ​a​ ​child…​ ​unless…
“There’s​ ​my​ ​good​ ​girl.​ ​You​ ​really​ ​are​ ​the​ ​most​ ​beautiful​ ​one​ ​that​ ​I​ ​have​ ​found​ ​yet.​ ​Don’t​ ​worry.​ ​I​ ​told you​ ​it​ ​won’t​ ​hurt​ ​and​ ​I​ ​meant​ ​it.​ ​None​ ​of​ ​the​ ​others​ ​ever​ ​complained,​ ​but​ ​then​ ​again,​ ​I’m​ ​not​ ​really  sure​ ​how​ ​this​ ​stuff​ ​all​ ​works​ ​so​ ​maybe​ ​you​​​ will​ ​ ​feel​ ​it​ ​and​ ​just​ ​won’t​ ​be​ ​able​ ​to​ ​do​ ​anything​ ​about​ ​it.​ ​I’ll  be​ ​the​ ​last​ ​thing​ ​you​ ​feel.​ ​Won’t​ ​that​ ​be​ ​nice?”
Elia​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​shake​ ​his​ ​head​ ​no.​ ​All​ ​he​ ​could​ ​do​ ​was​ ​breath​ ​as​ ​a​ ​growing​ ​constriction​ ​gripped​ ​his​ ​chest  and​ ​his​ ​breaths​ ​became​ ​ragged.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​change.​ ​If​ ​he​ ​was​ ​a​ ​wolf​ ​he​ ​could​ ​run,​ ​run​ ​far​ ​away​ ​from  everything.​ ​He​ ​could​ ​run​ ​until​ ​there​ ​was​ ​nothing​ ​left​ ​of​ ​him​ ​and​ ​he​ ​could​ ​be​ ​free.​ ​He​ ​could​ ​hear​ ​his  pulse​ ​drumming​ ​in​ ​his​ ​ears.​ ​He​ ​desperately​ ​searched​ ​the​ ​room​ ​looking​ ​for​ ​anything​ ​that​ ​could​ ​help​ ​him,  anyone.​ ​Branches​ ​scraped​ ​across​ ​the​ ​window.​ ​Branches​ ​that​ ​turned​ ​into​ ​screams​ ​as​ ​gruff​ ​hands​ ​began​ ​to fumble​ ​with​ ​his​ ​clothes.

*​ ​*​ ​*

He​ ​had​ ​to​ ​school​ ​his​ ​expression​ ​as​ ​he​ ​walked​ ​back​ ​into​ ​the​ ​room.​ ​The​ ​wheelchair​ ​caught​ ​the attention​ ​of​ ​the​ ​nurse​ ​as​ ​one​ ​of​ ​its​ ​wheels​ ​hit​ ​the​ ​door frame​ ​when​ ​the​ ​detective​ ​hastily entered.​ ​She​ ​had​ ​just​ ​finished​ ​pulling​ ​his​ ​pants​ ​on​ ​and​ ​startled,​ ​dropping​ ​the​ ​shirt​ ​she’d​ ​picked on​ ​the​ ​floor.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​handing​ ​it​ ​to​ ​her​ ​just​ ​as​ ​she​ ​fumbled​ ​to​ ​balance​ ​Elia​ ​so​ ​that​ ​she​ ​could reach​ ​it.​ ​His​ ​slight​ ​body​ ​nearly​ ​slipped​ ​from​ ​her​ ​grip​ ​and​ ​she​ ​let​ ​out​ ​a​ ​little​ ​eep​ ​as​ ​she​ ​steadied him.​ ​Gently​ ​the​ ​detective​ ​helped,​ ​pulling​ ​long​ ​dark​ ​hair​ ​out​ ​from​ ​the​ ​collar​ ​and​ ​settling​ ​it​ ​about Elia’s​ ​shoulders.​ ​Once​ ​he​ ​was​ ​sure​ ​that​ ​the​ ​shirt​ ​was​ ​pulled​ ​down​ ​around​ ​the​ ​body​ ​that​ ​was warm,​ ​but​ ​nearly​ ​lifeless,​ ​he​ ​cradled​ ​him​ ​with​ ​one​ ​arm​ ​while​ ​wrapping​ ​the​ ​blanket​ ​about​ ​him before​ ​lifting​ ​him​ ​into​ ​the​ ​wheelchair.​ ​Without​ ​a​ ​second​ ​thought​ ​he​ ​had​ ​grabbed​ ​the​ ​socks​ ​that had​ ​been​ ​beside​ ​where​ ​Elia​ ​sat,​ ​and​ ​the​ ​shoes​ ​so​ ​he​ ​could​ ​finish​ ​dressing​ ​him.​ ​This​ ​was​ ​the​ ​first time​ ​he​ ​would​ ​see​ ​him​ ​in​ ​actual​ ​clothes.​ ​It​ ​had​ ​always​ ​been​ ​too​ ​thin​ ​hospital​ ​gowns…​ ​or​ ​his own​ ​blood.​ ​The​ ​detective​ ​took​ ​a​ ​shaking​ ​breath.
“Do​ ​you​ ​have​ ​any​ ​kids,​ ​sir?”​ ​The​ ​woman’s​ ​voice​ ​was​ ​soft​ ​but​ ​he​ ​still​ ​spooked.​ ​He​ ​hadn’t​ ​even realised​ ​that​ ​she​ ​was​ ​still​ ​there.
“No.​ ​None​ ​to​ ​speak​ ​of.”
“I​ ​thought,​ ​when​ ​I​ ​first​ ​started,​ ​that​ ​he​ ​was​ ​your​ ​son.​ ​You​ ​treat​ ​him​ ​the​ ​way​ ​that​ ​a​ ​parent would​ ​treat​ ​one​ ​of​ ​their​ ​kids.​ ​One​ ​of​ ​the​ ​other​ ​nurses​ ​told​ ​me​ ​the​ ​story​ ​of​ ​how​ ​he​ ​came​ ​to​ ​be here​ ​and​ ​how​ ​old​ ​he​ ​is.​ ​I​ ​still​ ​can’t​ ​believe​ ​it.​ ​Now​ ​it​ ​looks​ ​like​ ​you​ ​could​ ​be​ ​his​ ​grandfather​ ​and he’s​ ​still,​ ​just​ ​the​ ​same​ ​as​ ​he​ ​was.​ ​Has​ ​it​ ​really​ ​been​ ​fifty​ ​years?”
The​ ​detective​ ​looked​ ​up​ ​with​ ​such​ ​a​ ​tortured​ ​expression​ ​that​ ​she​ ​visibly​ ​bit​ ​her​ ​tongue​ ​and gasped.
“I’m​ ​sorry,​ ​sir.​ ​I​ ​shouldn’t​ ​have​ ​said​ ​anything.​ ​You’re​ ​just,​ ​very​ ​good​ ​with​ ​him.​ ​You​ ​are​ ​the​ ​most caring​ ​person​ ​that​ ​comes​ ​here.”​ ​She​ ​offered​ ​him​ ​a​ ​smile​ ​and​ ​turned,​ ​leaving​ ​them​ ​alone.
Had​ ​it​ ​really​ ​been​ ​that​ ​long?​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​it​ ​had​ ​even​ ​as​ ​some​ ​part​ ​of​ ​him​ ​didn’t​ ​want​ ​to​ ​believe. He​ ​sighed​ ​as​ ​he​ ​carefully​ ​checked​ ​how​ ​Elia​ ​was​ ​in​ ​the​ ​chair.​ ​His​ ​eyes​ ​were​ ​open.​ ​He​ ​looked​ ​so sad.​ ​The​ ​detective​ ​stretched​ ​and​ ​smoothed​ ​his​ ​thumb​ ​around​ ​Elia’s​ ​face,​ ​wishing​ ​to​ ​offer​ ​him comfort.
“It’s​ ​okay,​ ​Elia.​ ​We’re​ ​going​ ​to​ ​the​ ​woods​ ​today.​ ​You​ ​will​ ​feel​ ​better,​ ​I​ ​just​ ​know​ ​it.​ ​Maybe soon…​ ​soon​ ​you​ ​will​ ​talk​ ​with​ ​me.​ ​I​ ​just​ ​want​ ​to​ ​tell​ ​you​ ​that​ ​nothing​ ​can​ ​hurt​ ​you​ ​now.​ ​I​ ​fixed everything.​ ​There’s​ ​no​ ​more​ ​pain.​ ​I​ ​found​ ​them,​ ​I​ ​found​ ​all​ ​the​ ​other​ ​children​ ​and​ ​now​ ​they have​ ​peace.​ ​I​ ​just…​ ​I​ ​wish​ ​I​ ​knew​ ​that​ ​you​ ​could​ ​hear​ ​me.​ ​I​ ​tried​ ​Elia,​ ​I​ ​​ ​tried.”
His​ ​hands​ ​wrapped​ ​around​ ​the​ ​handles​ ​of​ ​the​ ​wheelchair​ ​and​ ​he​ ​careful​ ​maneuvered​ ​them through​ ​the​ ​door​ ​and​ ​into​ ​the​ ​hallway.​ ​Before​ ​going​ ​any​ ​further,​ ​he​ ​grabbed​ ​another​ ​blanket which​ ​he​ ​settled​ ​about​ ​Elia’s​ ​shoulders​ ​and​ ​then​ ​across​ ​his​ ​lap.​ ​He​ ​almost​ ​looked​ ​like​ ​a​ ​normal little​ ​boy,​ ​not​ ​one​ ​who​ ​had​ ​been​ ​through​ ​what​ ​he​ ​had​ ​been​ ​through,​ ​not​ ​one​ ​who​ ​should​ ​have grown​ ​into​ ​a​ ​man​ ​and​ ​known​ ​life​ ​and​ ​love,​ ​not​ ​pain.​ ​The​ ​detective​ ​took​ ​a​ ​deep​ ​breath​ ​before he​ ​began​ ​to​ ​walk​ ​them​ ​towards​ ​the​ ​door,​ ​to​ ​the​ ​yard,​ ​and​ ​further​ ​to​ ​the​ ​trees​ ​that​ ​grew beyond.

*​ ​*​ ​*

Elia​ ​blinked​ ​tears​ ​from​ ​his​ ​eyes.​ ​The​ ​man​ ​was​ ​across​ ​the​ ​room.​ ​Pain​ ​enfolded​ ​him,​ ​so​ ​much​ ​pain​ ​from​ ​between his​ ​legs​ ​and​ ​within​ ​his​ ​pelvis​ ​that​ ​he​ ​could​ ​do​ ​nothing​ ​more​ ​than​ ​lay​ ​there.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​been​ ​dropped​ ​on​ ​the​ ​floor from​ ​the​ ​table.​ ​The​ ​man​ ​had​ ​said​ ​he’d​ ​ruined​ ​everything.​ ​He’d​ ​ruined​ ​everything​ ​because​ ​he’d​ ​been​ ​a​ ​boy​ ​instead of​ ​a​ ​girl.​ ​Then​ ​the​ ​man​ ​had​ ​found​ ​a​ ​knife​ ​and​ ​tried​ ​to​ ​make​ ​him​ ​a​ ​girl.​ ​Elia​ ​had​ ​never​ ​known​ ​that​ ​there​ ​could be​ ​so​ ​much​ ​pain​ ​that​ ​it​ ​could​ ​make​ ​you​ ​numb.​ ​All​ ​he​ ​could​ ​hear​ ​was​ ​the​ ​blood​ ​pumping​ ​in​ ​his​ ​ears​ ​and screaming,​ ​screaming​ ​that​ ​was​ ​muffled​ ​as​ ​though​ ​it​ ​was​ ​still​ ​through​ ​glass​ ​through​ ​the​ ​walls,​ ​screaming​ ​from the​ ​trees​ ​that​ ​normally​ ​whispered​ ​softly​ ​to​ ​him,​ ​that​ ​now​ ​reacted​ ​to​ ​his​ ​pain​ ​and​ ​horror.​ ​No​ ​one​ ​would​ ​save him.​ ​He’d​ ​run​ ​from​ ​the​ ​one​ ​person​ ​who​ ​always​ ​had,​ ​and​ ​had​ ​yet​ ​to​ ​meet​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​would​ ​protect​ ​him,​ ​be​ ​by  his​ ​side,​ ​when​ ​he​ ​grew​ ​to​ ​be​ ​alone.
Slowly​ ​he​ ​tried​ ​again.​ ​He​ ​tried​ ​to​ ​move.​ ​He​ ​blinked​ ​away​ ​tears​ ​as​ ​the​ ​pain​ ​intensified​ ​and​ ​he​ ​felt​ ​fresh​ ​blood well​ ​from​ ​between​ ​his​ ​legs.​ ​His​ ​fingers​ ​twitched​ ​and​ ​his​ ​arm​ ​sluggishly​ ​obeyed.​ ​He​ ​bashed​ ​himself​ ​in​ ​the​ ​face  with​ ​his​ ​wrist​ ​and​ ​fought​ ​not​ ​to​ ​whimper.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​know​ ​what​ ​would​ ​happen​ ​if​ ​he​ ​drew​ ​attention​ ​to​ ​himself.  He​ ​turned​ ​his​ ​head​ ​and​ ​saw​ ​a​ ​bloodied​ ​bit​ ​of​ ​flesh,​ ​not​ ​far​ ​from​ ​where​ ​he​ ​lay,​ ​that​ ​had​ ​been​ ​discarded​ ​like​ ​it was​ ​garbage.​ ​His​ ​eyes​ ​narrowed,​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​place​ ​what​ ​it​ ​was.​ ​It​ ​looked​ ​foreign,​ ​alien​ ​to​ ​him,​ ​but​ ​then​ ​he realized.​ ​That…​ ​that​ ​had​ ​been​ ​a​ ​part​ ​of​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​sobbed​ ​and​ ​reached​ ​for​ ​the​ ​piece​ ​that​ ​was​ ​missing.​ ​He​ ​wanted to​ ​feel​ ​whole​ ​again.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​go​ ​home.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​be​ ​in​ ​the​ ​woods​ ​so​ ​that​ ​he​ ​could​ ​listen​ ​to​ ​the​ ​music that​ ​the​ ​the​ ​whispered​ ​voices​ ​made​ ​as​ ​the​ ​wind​ ​blew​ ​through​ ​the​ ​trees.​ ​He​ ​heard​ ​the​ ​one​ ​he​ ​shared​ ​a​ ​room​ ​with shift,​ ​his​ ​attention​ ​drawn​ ​by​ ​the​ ​sound​ ​of​ ​him​ ​crying.
“You​ ​want​ ​it​ ​back,​ ​you​ ​worthless​ ​little​ ​brat,​ ​you​ ​can​ ​have​ ​it.​ ​It’s​ ​all​ ​going​ ​to​ ​be​ ​over​ ​soon​ ​anyway.​ ​You​ ​ruined  everything!”
Elia​ ​flinched​ ​when​ ​worn​ ​boots​ ​came​ ​into​ ​his​ ​field​ ​of​ ​vision.​ ​He​ ​waited​ ​to​ ​be​ ​kicked,​ ​closed​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​and​ ​braced for​ ​it,​ ​but​ ​instead​ ​felt​ ​something​ ​cold​ ​hit​ ​his​ ​leg.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​been​ ​kicked​ ​but​ ​that​ ​part​ ​of​ ​him​ ​wasn’t​ ​attached  anymore​ ​so​ ​he​ ​couldn’t​ ​feel​ ​the​ ​pain.​ ​He​ ​swallowed​ ​hard,​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​opening​ ​to​ ​find​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​stood​ ​over​ ​him.  What​ ​was​ ​he​ ​waiting​ ​for?​ ​Elia​ ​could​ ​tell​ ​that​ ​he​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​hurt​ ​him.​ ​The​ ​man​ ​who​ ​stood​ ​over​ ​him​ ​bled​ ​with​ ​a maliciousness​ ​that​ ​stained​ ​the​ ​room​ ​more​ ​than​ ​the​ ​steady​ ​stream​ ​of​ ​blood​ ​that​ ​dripped​ ​from​ ​those​ ​mutilated  places​ ​between​ ​Elia’s​ ​legs.​ ​He​ ​stood​ ​there,​ ​quietly​ ​regarding​ ​him​ ​before​ ​rubbing​ ​the​ ​crotch​ ​of​ ​his​ ​pants​ ​with​ ​a hand,​ ​smearing​ ​the​ ​blood​ ​from​ ​it​ ​on​ ​the​ ​fabric​ ​carelessly.
“You​ ​felt​ ​good​ ​anyway,​ ​didn’t​ ​you​ ​beautiful?​ ​I​ ​barely​ ​knew​ ​the​ ​difference​ ​once​ ​I​ ​was​ ​inside​ ​you.”​ ​The​ ​man’s  voice​ ​was​ ​a​ ​soft​ ​croon.
All​ ​Elia​ ​could​ ​do​ ​was​ ​fight​ ​to​ ​stay​ ​still​ ​as​ ​everything​ ​in​ ​him​ ​suddenly​ ​began​ ​to​ ​burn.​ ​He​ ​closed​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​and​ ​only heard​ ​the​ ​man​ ​leave,​ ​his​ ​footsteps​ ​on​ ​the​ ​rough​ ​wooden​ ​floor​ ​and​ ​then​ ​the​ ​door​ ​before​ ​his​ ​footsteps​ ​were muffled​ ​by​ ​soil.​ ​It​ ​felt​ ​like​ ​an​ ​eternity​ ​that​ ​he​ ​lay​ ​there.​ ​His​ ​hands​ ​began​ ​to​ ​ache,​ ​his​ ​mouth,​ ​his​ ​very​ ​bones protesting​ ​against​ ​the​ ​confines​ ​of​ ​his​ ​flesh​ ​as​ ​he​ ​took​ ​panting​ ​breaths,​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​remain​ ​calm.​ ​He​ ​wanted​ ​to run.​ ​HE​ ​WANTED​ ​TO​ ​RUN!
The​ ​door​ ​creaked​ ​open​ ​and​ ​Elia​ ​closed​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​tight,​ ​curling​ ​his​ ​hands​ ​into​ ​fists,​ ​digging​ ​claws​ ​into​ ​the​ ​flesh​ ​of his​ ​palms​ ​as​ ​he​ ​waited​ ​for​ ​the​ ​sound​ ​of​ ​boots​ ​on​ ​the​ ​wood​ ​of​ ​the​ ​floor.​ ​Instead​ ​it​ ​was​ ​paws,​ ​the​ ​soft​ ​sound​ ​of  leathery​ ​paw​ ​pads​ ​surrounded​ ​in​ ​fur​ ​and​ ​the​ ​distinguishable​ ​click​ ​of​ ​claws.
Elia​ ​turned​ ​his​ ​head​ ​and​ ​opened​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​just​ ​as​ ​she​ ​changed.​ ​Now,​ ​instead​ ​of​ ​the​ ​wolf​ ​who​ ​had​ ​let​ ​herself​ ​into  the​ ​room,​ ​his​ ​mother​ ​knelt​ ​beside​ ​him​ ​and​ ​smoothed​ ​his​ ​hair​ ​from​ ​his​ ​face​ ​in​ ​a​ ​touch​ ​that​ ​was​ ​so​ ​gentle.​ ​No!  No!​ ​How​ ​had​ ​she​ ​found​ ​him​ ​when​ ​he​ ​had​ ​run​ ​from​ ​her?​ ​What​ ​did​ ​it​ ​mean​ ​that​ ​she​ ​had​ ​been​ ​a​ ​wolf?​ ​She​ ​never changed!​ ​She​ ​said​ ​that​ ​they​ ​should​ ​never​ ​change​ ​because​ ​bad​ ​things​ ​happened​ ​when​ ​wolves​ ​changed.​ ​Her​ ​hands  ghosted​ ​touch​ ​over​ ​the​ ​rest​ ​of​ ​him,​ ​her​ ​eyes​ ​wide.
“Elia,​ ​Elia​ ​I’m​ ​sorry.​ ​I’m​ ​so​ ​sorry.​ ​I…”​ ​She​ ​looked​ ​back​ ​up​ ​to​ ​his​ ​face​ ​and​ ​smoothed​ ​a​ ​tear​ ​from​ ​his​ ​cheek.
“Mom,​ ​I​ ​don’t​ ​want​ ​you​ ​to​ ​see​ ​me​ ​like​ ​this.​ ​I​ ​don’t​ ​want​ ​you​ ​to​ ​worry.”​ ​He​ ​tried​ ​to​ ​move​ ​his​ ​hands​ ​to​ ​cover​ ​the  damage​ ​that​ ​she’d​ ​already​ ​seen​ ​and​ ​drew​ ​his​ ​legs​ ​together.​ ​She​ ​blinked​ ​at​ ​him,​ ​a​ ​furrow​ ​growing​ ​upon​ ​her​ ​brow.
“Baby,​ ​you​ ​have​ ​to​ ​fight​ ​it.​ ​You​ ​have​ ​to​ ​fight​ ​it​ ​right​ ​now​ ​because​ ​if​ ​you​ ​change,​ ​you​ ​might​ ​die.”​ ​Her​ ​voice​ ​was  quiet​ ​as​ ​a​ ​whisper​ ​and​ ​shook.​ ​She’d​ ​already​ ​seen​ ​too​ ​much.​ ​“You​ ​have​ ​to​ ​heal.​ ​I​ ​know​ ​it​ ​hurts​ ​but​ ​you​ ​have​ ​to…”
She​ ​stopped​ ​in​ ​the​ ​middle​ ​of​ ​her​ ​sentence,​ ​or​ ​maybe​ ​that​ ​was​ ​all​ ​she​ ​had​ ​meant​ ​to​ ​say.​ ​She​ ​cocked​ ​her​ ​head​ ​and,  in​ ​the​ ​blink​ ​of​ ​an​ ​eye,​ ​she​ ​was​ ​a​ ​wolf​ ​again.​ ​She​ ​gently​ ​stepped​ ​over​ ​him​ ​and​ ​under​ ​the​ ​table,​ ​only​ ​leaving​ ​a couple​ ​paw​ ​prints​ ​made​ ​of​ ​Elia’s​ ​blood​ ​as​ ​evidence​ ​that​ ​she​ ​existed​ ​at​ ​all.​ ​He​ ​heard​ ​boots​ ​outside​ ​before​ ​the​ ​door opened​ ​and​ ​they​​ ​could​ ​echo​ ​on​ ​the​ ​floor​ ​he​ ​shared​ ​with​ ​them.​ ​Elia​ ​didn’t​ ​look​ ​at​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​fighting​ ​for​ ​even breaths,​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​force​ ​a​ ​calm​ ​that​ ​seemed​ ​so​ ​distant​ ​in​ ​this​ ​world​ ​of​ ​pain,​ ​losing​ ​to​ ​a​ ​body​ ​that​ ​only​ ​wanted​ ​to run.​ ​Everything​ ​hurt​ ​so​ ​much.​ ​He​ ​wasn’t​ ​aware​ ​of​ ​the​ ​sound​ ​of​ ​a​ ​rifle​ ​being​ ​loaded​ ​and​ ​cocked,​ ​wasn’t​ ​aware​ ​of  anything​ ​until​ ​a​ ​deep​ ​growl​ ​began​ ​to​ ​rumble​ ​from​ ​the​ ​spot​ ​where​ ​he​ ​knew​ ​his​ ​mother​ ​was​ ​crouched.​ ​He​ ​looked  to​ ​find​ ​what​ ​she​ ​was​ ​growling​ ​at​ ​only​ ​to​ ​meet​ ​the​ ​muzzle​ ​of​ ​the​ ​rifle​ ​as​ ​it​ ​became​ ​level​ ​with​ ​the​ ​line​ ​of​ ​his​ ​eyes.
“I​ ​will​ ​be​ ​the​ ​last​ ​one​ ​to​ ​know​ ​your​ ​beauty.”
He​ ​didn’t​ ​even​ ​get​ ​to​ ​blink​ ​before​ ​she​ ​erupted,​ ​jumping​ ​for​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​aimed​ ​for​ ​her​ ​only​ ​son​ ​like​ ​he​ ​meant​ ​to put​ ​an​ ​animal​ ​out​ ​of​ ​its​ ​misery.​ ​Elia​ ​blinked​ ​again​ ​as​ ​the​ ​rifle​ ​went​ ​off,​ ​the​ ​shot​ ​missing​ ​him​ ​and​ ​finding​ ​one of​ ​the​ ​table​ ​legs​ ​before​ ​it​ ​embedded​ ​in​ ​the​ ​floor.​ ​The​ ​sound​ ​startled​ ​him,​ ​the​ ​smell,​ ​then​ ​the​ ​smell​ ​of​ ​blood.​ ​He  blinked​ ​and​ ​cried​ ​out.​ ​His​ ​body​ ​turned​ ​to​ ​fire​ ​as​ ​his​ ​senses​ ​tuned​ ​and​ ​he​ ​rolled​ ​to​ ​his​ ​feet.​ ​The​ ​door​ ​was​ ​closed.  He​ ​couldn’t​ ​run​ ​so​ ​he​ ​paced​ ​through​ ​his​ ​own​ ​blood,​ ​still​ ​fighting​ ​for​ ​control,​ ​his​ ​paws​ ​skittering​ ​on​ ​the​ ​wood​ ​as  the​ ​man​ ​and​ ​the​ ​larger​ ​wolf​ ​that​ ​had​ ​been​ ​his​ ​mother​ ​crashed​ ​about​ ​the​ ​room.​ ​The​ ​smell​ ​of​ ​blood​ ​was​ ​making  him​ ​dizzy,​ ​the​ ​pain​ ​overloading​ ​him​ ​as​ ​he​ ​fought​ ​to​ ​keep​ ​his​ ​feet​ ​under​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​scrambled​ ​out​ ​of​ ​the​ ​way​ ​as  they​ ​fell​ ​towards​ ​him​ ​and​ ​whimpered​ ​when​ ​his​ ​hind​ ​legs​ ​began​ ​to​ ​give​ ​out.
He​ ​stood,​ ​stone​ ​still​, so​ ​afraid​ ​that​ ​if​ ​he​ ​moved,​ ​he​ ​would​ ​fall,​ ​shaking​ ​with​ ​his​ ​need​ ​to​ ​collapse.​ ​Soon,​ ​he​ ​could run​ ​soon,​ ​even​ ​as​ ​some​ ​part​ ​of​ ​him​ ​knew​ ​that​ ​he​ ​would​ ​never​ ​know​ ​what​ ​it​ ​felt​ ​like​ ​to​ ​run,​ ​to​ ​feel​ ​the​ ​breeze​ ​in his​ ​fur​ ​and​ ​the​ ​soil​ ​between​ ​his​ ​toes,​ ​the​ ​forest​ ​around​ ​him​ ​and​ ​its​ ​song​ ​embracing​ ​him​ ​in​ ​warmth​ ​and​ ​calm,  making​ ​him​ ​feel​ ​whole.
Gentle​ ​hands​ ​smoothed​ ​through​ ​his​ ​fur​ ​and​ ​he​ ​whined.​ ​He​ ​leaned​ ​into​ ​the​ ​touch,​ ​unable​ ​to​ ​do​ ​anything​ ​more.  He​ ​could​ ​hear​ ​a​ ​dripping,​ ​hear​ ​a​ ​dripping​ ​from​ ​somewhere,​ ​maybe​ ​it​ ​was​ ​from​ ​him.​ ​Then​ ​the​ ​voice​ ​registered.​ ​It  was​ ​his​ ​mother’s​ ​voice.​ ​His​ ​mother​ ​was​ ​asking​ ​him​ ​for​ ​something.​ ​She​ ​sounded​ ​so​ ​sad.​ ​Why​ ​was​ ​she​ ​sad?​ ​She  was​ ​asking​ ​him​ ​to​ ​change.​ ​He​ ​looked​ ​down​ ​to​ ​where​ ​hands​ ​should​ ​be​ ​and​ ​found​ ​paws.​ ​He’d​ ​changed!​ ​Some​ ​part of​ ​him​ ​hadn’t​ ​realized​ ​and​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​went​ ​wide,​ ​gleaming​ ​like​ ​the​ ​sun​ ​on​ ​snow​ ​during​ ​the​ ​coldest​ ​day​ ​of​ ​winter.  She​ ​had​ ​told​ ​him​ ​not​ ​to​ ​change​ ​and​ ​he​ ​had​ ​done​ ​it​ ​anyway.​ ​Now​ ​she​ ​seemed​ ​like​ ​she​ ​was​ ​afraid. Her​ ​hands​ ​were​ ​such​ ​a​ ​comfort​ ​that​ ​he​ ​involuntarily​ ​sat.​ ​Just​ ​as​ ​quickly​ ​as​ ​he​ ​had​ ​become​ ​a​ ​wolf,​ ​he  transitioned​ ​back​ ​and​ ​collapsed​ ​into​ ​her.
“Elia,​ ​my​ ​strong​ ​Elia.​ ​It’s​ ​okay,​ ​somehow​ ​it​ ​will​ ​be​ ​okay.​ ​I’ll​ ​make​ ​sure.​ ​Please​ ​just…”    Something​ ​happened.​ ​Her​ ​words​ ​stopped​ ​just​ ​as​ ​there​ ​was​ ​a​ ​loud​ ​noise.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​still​ ​having​ ​problems  understanding​ ​everything​ ​that​ ​was​ ​happening​ ​around​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​still​ ​wasn’t​ ​only​ ​human.​ ​Her​ ​hands​ ​had​ ​gone  limp​ ​and​ ​he​ ​had​ ​to​ ​brace​ ​himself​ ​so​ ​that​ ​he​ ​wouldn’t​ ​fall.​ ​She​ ​slowly​ ​move​ ​away​ ​from​ ​him,​ ​her​ ​hands​ ​slipping  from​ ​their​ ​embrace​ ​until​ ​he​ ​saw​ ​that​ ​she​ ​was​ ​falling​ ​back​ ​to​ ​the​ ​floor.​ ​Something​ ​was​ ​wrong.​ ​Her​ ​face.​ ​She  only​ ​had​ ​half​ ​a​ ​face.​ ​He​ ​blinked​ ​as​ ​her​​ ​head​ ​hit​ ​the​ ​floor,​ ​the​ ​remaining​ ​contents​ ​spilling​ ​from​ ​it​ ​as​ ​it​ ​made​ ​a hollow​ ​sound.​ ​His​ ​eyes​ ​rose​ ​to​ ​find​ ​the​ ​man​ ​braced​ ​against​ ​the​ ​wall,​ ​reloading​ ​his​ ​rifle.​ ​He​ ​had…​ ​he​ ​had…
Rage,​ ​like​ ​nothing​ ​Elia​ ​had​ ​ever​ ​felt,​ ​gripped​ ​him.​ ​The​ ​window​ ​smashed​ ​as​ ​the​ ​branch​ ​struck​ ​it,​ ​driven​ ​by​ ​the  screams​ ​of​ ​the​ ​wind​ ​outside,​ ​the​ ​door​ ​cracked​ ​open.​ ​Elia​ ​sobbed​ ​once,​ ​took​ ​a​ ​great​ ​breath,​ ​and​ ​screamed.
“CISCO!”
He​ ​was​ ​at​ ​once​ ​enveloped​ ​in​ ​a​ ​darkness​ ​that​ ​was​ ​so​ ​comfortable​ ​and​ ​familiar​ ​he​ ​could,​ ​at​ ​last,​ ​take​ ​a​ ​gentle  breath.​ ​He​ ​closed​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​and​ ​relaxed.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​feel​ ​this​ ​for​ ​so​ ​long.​ ​This​ ​was​ ​the​ ​place​ ​he​ ​had​ ​almost come​ ​so​ ​many​ ​times.
“Cisco…”​ ​he​ ​repeated​ ​the​ ​name,​ ​meaning​ ​only​ ​to​ ​hold​ ​it​ ​within​ ​his​ ​mouth​ ​one​ ​more​ ​time.
“I’m​ ​here,​ ​Elia.​ ​You​ ​are​ ​not​ ​alone.”​ ​Cool​ ​hands​ ​found​ ​him​ ​and​ ​moved​ ​to​ ​offer​ ​him​ ​comfort,​ ​just​ ​as​ ​his​ ​mother’s  had.
“Why​ ​did​ ​this​ ​happen?​ ​I​ ​don’t​ ​understand.​ ​Wasn’t​ ​I​ ​good​ ​enough?​ ​Why…​ ​why​ ​is​ ​there​ ​so​ ​much​ ​pain?”​ ​Elia  opened​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​just​ ​as​ ​he​ ​was​ ​drawn​ ​into​ ​an​ ​embrace​ ​that​ ​felt​ ​as​ ​though​ ​it​ ​were​ ​made​ ​of​ ​spider​ ​silk​ ​and  shadows.​ ​He​ ​could​ ​feel​ ​uneven​ ​breaths​ ​against​ ​his​ ​hair.​ ​There​ ​was​ ​a​ ​growing​ ​within​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​could​ ​sense​ ​the presence​ ​of​ ​another,​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​held​ ​him.​ ​This​ ​one​ ​who​ ​smelled​ ​of​ ​blood​ ​and​ ​leaves,​ ​who​ ​held​ ​him​ ​so​ ​close,​ ​this person​ ​wasn’t​ ​really​ ​a​ ​person​ ​at​ ​all.​ ​They​ ​were​ ​a​ ​Fae.
“I​ ​don’t​ ​know​ ​child.​ ​I​ ​don’t​ ​know.”
“Why​ ​is​ ​everyone​ ​afraid​ ​of​ ​you?​ ​Why​ ​wasn’t​ ​I​ ​allowed​ ​to​ ​talk​ ​to​ ​you​ ​before?”​ ​Elia​ ​felt​ ​so​ ​tired.​ ​He​ ​just​ ​wanted  to​ ​give​ ​himself​ ​to​ ​the​ ​darkness​ ​so​ ​the​ ​pain​ ​would​ ​stop.
“Aren’t​ ​you​ ​afraid?”​ ​There​ ​was​ ​hesitation​ ​and​ ​Elia​ ​could​ ​feel​ ​a​ ​wave​ ​of​ ​doubt​ ​from​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​held​ ​him.    “No.​ ​I’m​ ​not​ ​afraid.​ ​I​ ​know​ ​what​ ​you​ ​are​ ​and​ ​I​ ​could​ ​never​ ​be​ ​afraid​ ​of​ ​you.”​ ​He​ ​fought​ ​to​ ​keep​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​open  and​ ​he​ ​nuzzled​ ​against​ ​a​ ​strong​ ​chest.
“What?”​ ​Surprise​ ​colored​ ​the​ ​voice​ ​that​ ​reverberated​ ​beneath​ ​his​ ​ear.
“You​ ​are​ ​a​ ​part​ ​of​ ​me​ ​and​ ​I​ ​am​ ​a​ ​part​ ​of​ ​you.​ ​I​ ​want…​ ​I​ ​want​ ​to​ ​know​ ​you.​ ​I​ ​want​ ​to​ ​talk​ ​with​ ​you​ ​and​ ​find  out​ ​what​ ​you​ ​are​ ​like.​ ​I’ve​ ​dreamt​ ​about​ ​that​ ​for​ ​so​ ​long.​ ​You​ ​could​ ​tell​ ​me​ ​about​ ​my​ ​father,​ ​and​ ​I​ ​could​ ​tell  you​ ​about​ ​the​ ​sunshine.​ ​I’m​ ​not​ ​afraid.​ ​You​ ​are​ ​my​ ​only​ ​friend.”​ ​He​ ​tried​ ​to​ ​bring​ ​his​ ​arms​ ​up​ ​but​ ​his​ ​body protested.​ ​“I’m​ ​happy​ ​you​ ​are​ ​here.”
The​ ​one​ ​who​ ​held​ ​him​ ​shivered​ ​before​ ​responding.​ ​“Dear​ ​sweet​ ​child,​ ​though​ ​I​ ​belong​ ​to​ ​you,​ ​you​ ​should​ ​be  afraid.”
Elia​ ​used​ ​the​ ​remainder​ ​of​ ​his​ ​strength​ ​to​ ​pull​ ​away​ ​so​ ​that​ ​he​ ​could​ ​see​ ​the​ ​face​ ​of​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​had​ ​come​ ​to  him.​ ​Hair​ ​the​ ​color​ ​of​ ​darkest​ ​garnet​ ​framed​ ​a​ ​face​ ​that​ ​held​ ​swirled​ ​ghost​ ​fire​ ​markings,​ ​almost​ ​as​ ​though​ ​the scars​ ​that​ ​made​ ​them​ ​still​ ​burned.​ ​Eyes​ ​that​ ​were​ ​just​ ​as​ ​cold​ ​gazed​ ​at​ ​him.​ ​This​ ​Fae​ ​did​ ​not​ ​look​ ​like​ ​it​ ​was  alive,​ ​but​ ​a​ ​shadow​ ​that​ ​had​ ​been​ ​born​ ​from​ ​death.​ ​Elia​ ​would​ ​have​ ​to​ ​ask​ ​him​ ​why​ ​when​ ​this​ ​was​ ​all​ ​over.​ ​He knew​ ​that​ ​face.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​seen​ ​it​ ​a​ ​hundred​ ​times.
“You​ ​don’t​ ​belong​ ​to​ ​me​ ​or​ ​to​ ​anyone​ ​else.​ ​You​ ​are​ ​free.”​ ​​ ​his​ ​breaths​ ​came​ ​in​ ​shallow.​ ​“I​ ​don’t​ ​want​ ​to​ ​die.​ ​It’s  not​ ​fair.”
“I​ ​won’t​ ​let​ ​you​ ​die.​ ​You​ ​said​ ​you​ ​would​ ​tell​ ​me​ ​about​ ​the​ ​sunshine​ ​and​ ​I​ ​want​ ​to​ ​hear​ ​about​ ​it​ ​very​ ​much.​
I want​ ​to​ ​know​ ​it​ ​through​ ​your​ ​eyes.​ ​You​ ​rest.​ ​You​ ​rest​ ​and​ ​I’ll​ ​take​ ​care​ ​of​ ​everything.​ ​When​ ​you​ ​wake​ ​up,​ ​I’ll  be​ ​there.​ ​I​ ​promise.”
Elia​ ​nodded​ ​even​ ​as​ ​he​ ​felt​ ​himself​ ​lowered.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​carefully​ ​laid​ ​out​ ​upon​ ​the​ ​floor,​ ​but​ ​somehow​ ​it​ ​wasn’t​ ​as hard​ ​as​ ​it​ ​was​ ​before.​ ​The​ ​pain​ ​slowly​ ​faded​ ​from​ ​his​ ​perception,​ ​the​ ​fear,​ ​and​ ​all​ ​that​ ​was​ ​left​ ​was​ ​the  darkness​ ​that​ ​surrounded​ ​him,​ ​even​ ​with​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​wide​ ​open. He​ ​didn’t​ ​hear​ ​what​ ​happened,​ ​the​ ​screaming​ ​of​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​hurt​ ​him,​ ​the​ ​slow​ ​torture​ ​that​ ​happened​ ​as​ ​a  form​ ​that​ ​had​ ​been​ ​human​ ​was​ ​twisted​ ​beyond​ ​recognition​ ​as​ ​his​ ​soul​ ​was​ ​consumed​ ​while​ ​he​ ​still​ ​lived.​ ​Elia  didn’t​ ​hear​ ​the​ ​sirens,​ ​the​ ​foot​ ​falls​ ​of​ ​the​ ​first​ ​responders,​ ​or​ ​the​ ​words​ ​of​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​would​ ​someday​ ​consider  him​ ​to​ ​be​ ​his​ ​only​ ​friend.

*​ ​*​ ​*

Elia​ ​blinked.​ ​The​ ​world​ ​felt​ ​so​ ​out​ ​of​ ​focus.​ ​It​ ​felt​ ​like​ ​he’d​ ​just​ ​been​ ​moving,​ ​but​ ​he​ ​was​ ​clearly sitting​ ​in​ ​a​ ​chair.​ ​He​ ​blinked​ ​again​ ​and​ ​swallowed.​ ​He​ ​was…​ ​he​ ​was​ ​in​ ​the​ ​forest.​ ​The​ ​trees grew​ ​up​ ​from​ ​the​ ​rich​ ​dark​ ​earth​ ​and​ ​he​ ​could​ ​hear​ ​the​ ​various​ ​worms​ ​and​ ​insects​ ​that​ ​nestled amidst​ ​the​ ​detritus​ ​on​ ​the​ ​forest​ ​floor.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​crisp,​ ​but​ ​warm,​ ​and​ ​he​ ​could​ ​smell​ ​the​ ​ferns​ ​that had​ ​just​ ​raised​ ​their​ ​fists​ ​against​ ​the​ ​cold,​ ​angry​ ​to​ ​have​ ​been​ ​made​ ​to​ ​wait​ ​as​ ​frost​ ​and​ ​snow ruled​ ​the​ ​land​ ​during​ ​the​ ​winter.
His​ ​head​ ​rose​ ​to​ ​find​ ​the​ ​path​ ​before​ ​him.​ ​His​ ​gaze​ ​fell​ ​to​ ​one​ ​of​ ​his​ ​hands​ ​before​ ​rising​ ​as​ ​well. He​ ​felt​ ​bigger​ ​than​ ​he​ ​had​ ​been.​ ​He​ ​felt​ ​different.​ ​He​ ​remembered​ ​hearing​ ​a​ ​voice​ ​that sometimes​ ​he​ ​had​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​say​ ​something​ ​back​ ​to.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​know​ ​the​ ​name​ ​of​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who spoke​ ​to​ ​him​ ​but​ ​he​ ​found​ ​that​ ​voice​ ​to​ ​be​ ​such​ ​a​ ​comfort.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​ask​ ​his​ ​name.​ ​He had​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​tell​ ​him​ ​that​ ​he​ ​had​ ​been​ ​listening.
His​ ​eyes​ ​found​ ​a​ ​darkness​ ​before​ ​them.​ ​It​ ​wasn’t​ ​a​ ​shadow,​ ​though​ ​it​ ​was​ ​made​ ​from​ ​them.​ ​He knew​ ​that​ ​kind​ ​of​ ​shadow.​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​the​ ​comfort​ ​of​ ​its​ ​embrace.
“Cisco…”​ ​just​ ​a​ ​whisper​ ​from​ ​his​ ​lips.​ ​That​ ​one​ ​had​ ​been​ ​promised​ ​and​ ​made​ ​promises.​ ​That one​ ​was​ ​free,​ ​but​ ​still​ ​held​ ​him​ ​as​ ​though​ ​some​ ​part​ ​of​ ​him​ ​belonged.
“I’ve​ ​brought​ ​him.​ ​He’s​ ​here.​ ​Please,​ ​please​ ​tell​ ​me​ ​that​ ​he​ ​will​ ​wake.​ ​Please!”
Elia​ ​flinched.​ ​He​ ​hadn’t​ ​realized​ ​that​ ​there​ ​was​ ​someone​ ​else​ ​so​ ​near.​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​that​ ​voice.​ ​It was​ ​him,​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​always​ ​spoke​ ​to​ ​him.​ ​The​ ​one​ ​who​ ​he​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​say​ ​something​ ​to.
“I-I’m​ ​awake.”​ ​He​ ​took​ ​even​ ​breaths​ ​and​ ​smoothed​ ​his​ ​hair​ ​from​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​with​ ​one​ ​of​ ​his​ ​hands. “I’m​ ​awake…”
A​ ​warm​ ​hand​ ​gripped​ ​his​ ​shoulder.​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​this​ ​touch.​ ​This​ ​touch​ ​was​ ​caring,​ ​loving,​ ​and always​ ​warm​ ​and​ ​gentle.​ ​His​ ​fingers​ ​covered​ ​that​ ​hand​ ​before​ ​he​ ​turned​ ​his​ ​head​ ​toward​ ​it. This​ ​belonged​ ​to​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​had​ ​cared​ ​for​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​knew​ ​this​ ​touch​ ​as​ ​well​ ​as​ ​he​ ​knew​ ​the voice.
“So​ ​you​ ​are…​ ​Elia,​ ​I​ ​have​ ​waited​ ​for​ ​so​ ​long​ ​just​ ​to​ ​hear​ ​your​ ​voice.”​ ​Those​ ​words​ ​were​ ​just​ ​a low​ ​murmur,​ ​as​ ​though​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​made​ ​them​ ​was​ ​afraid​ ​that​ ​some​ ​spell​ ​would​ ​be​ ​broken​ ​if he​ ​uttered​ ​much​ ​more​ ​than​ ​that.​ ​Elia​ ​felt​ ​the​ ​hand​ ​that​ ​gripped​ ​him​ ​shift​ ​until​ ​the​ ​man​ ​who had​ ​been​ ​behind​ ​him​ ​rounded​ ​his​ ​seat​ ​and​ ​knelt​ ​before​ ​him,​ ​carefully​ ​keeping​ ​hold​ ​of​ ​his fingers.​ ​“I​ ​tried​ ​Elia,​ ​I​ ​tried​ ​to​ ​make​ ​things​ ​right.​ ​I​ ​found…​ ​I​ ​found​ ​all​ ​of​ ​the​ ​others​ ​and​ ​brought them​ ​back​ ​to​ ​their​ ​families.​ ​You​ ​were​ ​the​ ​only​ ​one​ ​I​ ​could​ ​never​ ​find​ ​anything​ ​out​ ​about.”
“That’s​ ​right.​ ​There​ ​were​ ​others.​ ​That​ ​person…​ ​I​ ​never​ ​knew​ ​him.”​ ​Elia​ ​got​ ​a​ ​shiver​ ​and​ ​another warm​ ​hand​ ​rose​ ​to​ ​steady​ ​him.​ ​“I​ ​only​ ​knew​ ​my​ ​mom.”
“Your​ ​mom,​ ​she…​ ​she’s…”
“She’s​ ​dead.​ ​I​ ​remember.​ ​She​ ​came​ ​to​ ​find​ ​me,​ ​somehow​ ​she​ ​found​ ​me​ ​and​ ​then…”​ ​his​ ​voice trailed​ ​off.​ ​Elia​ ​knew​ ​that​ ​this​ ​person​ ​knew​ ​the​ ​rest.​ ​The​ ​infinite​ ​regret​ ​within​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​said more​ ​than​ ​his​ ​words​ ​ever​ ​could.​ ​“I​ ​had​ ​run​ ​away,​ ​but​ ​she​ ​came​ ​to​ ​find​ ​me​ ​anyway.​ ​I​ ​see​ ​now… it​ ​was​ ​stupid.​ ​She​ ​was​ ​only​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​protect​ ​me​ ​because​ ​she​ ​didn’t​ ​understand,​ ​the​ ​darkness​ ​is not​ ​the​ ​danger​ ​and​ ​the​ ​one​ ​within​ ​it​ ​is​ ​not​ ​to​ ​be​ ​feared,​ ​but​ ​free.​ ​We​ ​both​ ​belong​ ​to​ ​each​ ​other and​ ​are​ ​ourselves,​ ​Fae​ ​and​ ​Wolf.”
“Fae…”​ ​his​ ​fingers​ ​tightened​ ​the​ ​smallest​ ​amount​ ​as​ ​his​ ​words​ ​shook.​ ​“…and​ ​Wolf.​ ​The​ ​one who​ ​came​ ​to​ ​you,​ ​was​ ​with​ ​you…​ ​he​ ​is​ ​the​ ​wolf?”
Their​ ​eyes​ ​met​ ​and​ ​Elia’s​ ​momentarily​ ​lit​ ​with​ ​ghost​ ​fire.​ ​“No.​ ​I’m​ ​the​ ​wolf.​ ​My​ ​guardian​ ​is​ ​the Fae,​ ​though​ ​he​ ​is​ ​more​ ​than​ ​that​ ​as​ ​well.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​a​ ​wolf​ ​long​ ​ago,​ ​but​ ​something​ ​happened​ ​so he​ ​is​ ​no​ ​longer​ ​what​ ​he​ ​was.​ ​I​ ​know​ ​that​ ​now.​ ​I​ ​have​ ​learned​ ​so​ ​many​ ​things​ ​while​ ​I​ ​was​ ​in​ ​the darkness,​ ​and​ ​you.​ ​I​ ​heard​ ​you.​ ​I​ ​wanted​ ​to​ ​tell​ ​you​ ​that​ ​I​ ​was​ ​listening.”
Elia​ ​watched​ ​the​ ​man​ ​before​ ​him​ ​take​ ​a​ ​shaky​ ​breath.​ ​He​ ​studied​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​wore​ ​a​ ​long​ ​coat​ ​that swept​ ​away​ ​from​ ​him​ ​and​ ​lay​ ​on​ ​the​ ​ground.​ ​It​ ​looked​ ​a​ ​little​ ​big​ ​on​ ​him,​ ​as​ ​though​ ​it​ ​had​ ​been picked​ ​when​ ​the​ ​person​ ​who​ ​bought​ ​it​ ​had​ ​been​ ​larger,​ ​where​ ​this​ ​person​ ​was​ ​almost uncomfortably​ ​thin.​ ​His​ ​hands​ ​were​ ​warm​ ​and​ ​gentle,​ ​but​ ​weathered​ ​by​ ​time​ ​and​ ​his​ ​wrists disappeared​ ​into​ ​the​ ​sleeves​ ​of​ ​his​ ​shirt​ ​and​ ​then​ ​coat,​ ​once​ ​more,​ ​much​ ​the​ ​way​ ​that someone’s​ ​might​ ​if​ ​they​ ​had​ ​lost​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​of​ ​weight​ ​and​ ​forgotten​ ​to​ ​buy​ ​new​ ​clothes​ ​that​ ​fit.​ ​Hair that​ ​had​ ​been​ ​red​ ​but​ ​now​ ​faded​ ​to​ ​blonde​​ ​and​ ​grey​ ​shifted​ ​in​ ​the​ ​light​ ​breeze.​ ​His​ ​face​ ​was kind,​ ​honest,​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​warm​ ​but​ ​held​ ​a​ ​sadness.​ ​Those​ ​eyes​ ​had​ ​seen​ ​so​ ​many​ ​things,​ ​so​ ​many horrible​ ​things,​ ​it​ ​was​ ​as​ ​though​ ​those​ ​visions​ ​had​ ​stolen​ ​his​ ​life​ ​away,​ ​and​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​knelt here​ ​was​ ​a​ ​shadow​ ​of​ ​what​ ​he​ ​had​ ​been.​ ​It​ ​hurt​ ​to​ ​see​ ​such​ ​a​ ​good​ ​proud​ ​man​ ​devastated​ ​by the​ ​course​ ​of​ ​his​ ​life​ ​and​ ​Elia​ ​couldn’t​ ​help​ ​but​ ​reach​ ​and​ ​place​ ​his​ ​other​ ​hand​ ​upon​ ​a​ ​cheek that​ ​he​ ​was​ ​sure,​ ​should​ ​have​ ​been​ ​more​ ​rounded.​ ​Those​ ​brown​ ​eyes​ ​came​ ​back​ ​to​ ​find​ ​him, and​ ​a​ ​smile​ ​crossed​ ​the​ ​lips​ ​who​ ​had​ ​said​ ​his​ ​name​ ​so​ ​many​ ​times.
“You​ ​are​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​needs​ ​comforted,​ ​Elia.​ ​I’m​ ​fine.”
“That’s​ ​not​ ​true.”
Neither​ ​of​ ​them​ ​moved​ ​as​ ​wisps​ ​of​ ​shadow​ ​slowly​ ​settled​ ​around​ ​them.
“It’s​ ​time​ ​to​ ​go,​ ​Elia.​ ​They​ ​will​ ​notice​ ​that​ ​you​ ​are​ ​missing​ ​soon.”​ ​A​ ​cool​ ​hand​ ​settled​ ​onto​ ​the detective’s​ ​shoulder.
“Go​ ​but…​ ​you’ve​ ​only​ ​just​ ​woken.​ ​I​ ​got​ ​some​ ​things​ ​for​ ​you​ ​that​ ​are​ ​back…​ ​back​ ​at​ ​the hospital.​ ​I​ ​had​ ​wanted…​ ​I​ ​have​ ​shared​ ​a​ ​lifetime​ ​with​ ​you​ ​and​ ​haven’t​ ​known​ ​you​ ​at​ ​all.​ ​You were​ ​the​ ​one​ ​mystery​ ​I​ ​could​ ​never​ ​solve​ ​and…​ ​my​ ​friend.”​ ​He​ ​choked​ ​on​ ​tears,​ ​closing​ ​his eyes.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​want​ ​to​ ​cause​ ​Elia​ ​any​ ​more​ ​pain,​ ​but​ ​he​ ​couldn’t​ ​help​ ​the​ ​sting​ ​of​ ​knowing​ ​that he​ ​had​ ​to​ ​leave.​ ​Just​ ​as​ ​he​ ​didn’t​ ​want​ ​to​ ​admit​ ​it,​ ​if​ ​Elia​ ​returned​ ​alive​ ​and​ ​awake,​ ​he​ ​would​ ​be taken​ ​instantly​ ​by​ ​those​ ​who​ ​had​ ​been​ ​waiting.​ ​He​ ​had​ ​already​ ​been​ ​through​ ​so​ ​much.​ ​A​ ​pain grew​ ​in​ ​his​ ​chest​ ​and​ ​spread​ ​down​ ​one​ ​arm,​ ​an​ ​ache​ ​laced​ ​with​ ​fire.​ ​He​ ​gasped​ ​and​ ​clutched​ ​his chest.
“Cisco…​ ​what​ ​is​ ​happening​ ​to​ ​him.”
The​ ​detective​ ​could​ ​feel​ ​soft​ ​fingers​ ​upon​ ​his​ ​face​ ​wiping​ ​away​ ​the​ ​tears​ ​as​ ​Elia​ ​shifted​ ​forward, closer.
“He’s​ ​dying.​ ​He​ ​has​ ​waited​ ​for​ ​you​ ​since​ ​he​ ​was​ ​young​ ​and​ ​now…​ ​this​ ​must​ ​feel​ ​like​ ​you​ ​are rejecting​ ​him.​ ​Human​ ​hearts​ ​are​ ​fragile​ ​things​ ​even​ ​if​ ​wolfen​ ​hearts​ ​can​ ​be​ ​shattered​ ​more completely.”
“Reject…​ ​no.​ ​I’m​ ​not.​ ​Cisco​ ​save​ ​him.”​ ​Elia’s​ ​voice​ ​sounded​ ​desperate.​ ​Why​ ​did​ ​he​ ​sound​ ​like that?
“I​ ​wish​ ​that​ ​I​ ​knew​ ​how.​ ​I​ ​only​ ​know​ ​how​ ​to​ ​consume.”​ ​The​ ​cold​ ​grasp​ ​squeezed​ ​his​ ​shoulder​ ​in an​ ​attempt​ ​at​ ​comfort,​ ​even​ ​as​ ​the​ ​words​ ​sounded​ ​as​ ​though​ ​they​ ​were​ ​filled​ ​with​ ​regret.
Dying.​ ​That​ ​was​ ​unexpected.​ ​At​ ​least​ ​he​ ​wouldn’t​ ​have​ ​to​ ​figure​ ​out​ ​how​ ​to​ ​explain​ ​what happened​ ​to​ ​Elia.​ ​He​ ​just​ ​wished​ ​he​ ​had​ ​more​ ​time.​ ​All​ ​he​ ​wanted​ ​was​ ​more​ ​time​ ​and​ ​he​ ​didn’t know​ ​why​ ​it​ ​was​ ​so​ ​important.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​all​ ​happening​ ​so​ ​fast.​ ​He​ ​was​ ​having​ ​trouble​ ​breathing​ ​as his​ ​body​ ​spasmed.
“Look​ ​at​ ​me.​ ​Please​ ​look​ ​at​ ​me.​ ​Tell​ ​me​ ​your​ ​name.​ ​You​ ​never,​ ​ever,​ ​told​ ​me​ ​your​ ​name​ ​in​ ​all that​ ​time.​ ​You​ ​only​ ​called​ ​mine.​ ​Names​ ​are​ ​important​ ​if​ ​you​ ​are​ ​going​ ​to​ ​find​ ​your​ ​way​ ​back. You​ ​may​ ​not​ ​understand​ ​but​ ​I​ ​need​ ​you​ ​to​ ​stay​ ​with​ ​me​ ​for​ ​one​ ​moment​ ​longer​ ​before​ ​you​ ​can be​ ​free.​ ​Will​ ​you​ ​do​ ​that?”
The​ ​detective​ ​nodded​ ​even​ ​as​ ​he​ ​could​ ​feel​ ​a​ ​numbness​ ​settling​ ​over​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​would​ ​try.​ ​Slowly he​ ​forced​ ​his​ ​eyes​ ​open​ ​and​ ​brought​ ​dark​ ​hair​ ​and​ ​pale​ ​skin​ ​into​ ​focus.​ ​Elia’s​ ​eyes​ ​were​ ​burning, illuminated​ ​from​ ​within​ ​and​ ​a​ ​warmth​ ​bloomed​ ​from​ ​that​ ​light.​ ​He​ ​sighed​ ​and​ ​settled​ ​back​ ​into arms​ ​that​ ​steadied​ ​him​ ​from​ ​behind.
“Gabriel…”​ ​he​ ​whispered.​ ​“My​ ​name​ ​is​ ​Gabriel.”
He​ ​wasn’t​ ​sure​ ​if​ ​the​ ​darkness​ ​about​ ​the​ ​edges​ ​of​ ​his​ ​vision​ ​were​ ​from​ ​the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​held​ ​him​ ​or the​ ​one​ ​who​ ​slowly​ ​rose​ ​from​ ​the​ ​wheelchair​ ​with​ ​a​ ​look​ ​upon​ ​his​ ​face​ ​that​ ​said​ ​so​ ​many things.​ ​So​ ​young,​ ​Elia​ ​was​ ​still​ ​so​ ​young​ ​and​ ​had​ ​the​ ​same​ ​quality​ ​that​ ​an​ ​early​ ​spring​ ​flower would,​ ​delicate​ ​but​ ​somehow​ ​so​ ​strong.​ ​He’d​ ​missed​ ​it​ ​before​ ​but…​ ​now​ ​he​ ​couldn’t​ ​see​ ​the child​ ​that​ ​had​ ​been​ ​so​ ​still​ ​in​ ​that​ ​bed,​ ​the​ ​boy​ ​who​ ​would​ ​never​ ​grow​ ​up,​ ​had​ ​done​ ​just​ ​that. Elia​ ​took​ ​his​ ​face​ ​in​ ​his​ ​hands,​ ​so​ ​warm,​ ​and​ ​smoothed​ ​years​ ​of​ ​pain​ ​from​ ​weathered​ ​cheeks and​ ​fixed​ ​him​ ​with​ ​a​ ​look​ ​that​ ​only​ ​made​ ​Gabriel​ ​wish​ ​he​ ​had​ ​more​ ​time.
“Gabriel,​ ​I​ ​will​ ​find​ ​you​ ​again​ ​and​ ​we​ ​will​ ​be​ ​one.​ ​Our​ ​souls​ ​will​ ​run​ ​together​ ​and​ ​I​ ​will​ ​know​ ​you in​ ​this​ ​life​ ​and​ ​the​ ​next.”​ ​Elia’s​ ​eyes​ ​became​ ​even​ ​brighter​ ​as​ ​he​ ​leaned​ ​in​ ​so​ ​close.​ ​“Come​ ​back to​ ​me.​ ​Come​ ​back​ ​to​ ​me,​ ​Gabriel.​ ​I​ ​will​ ​be​ ​waiting.”
He​ ​took​ ​a​ ​shuddering​ ​breath,​ ​then​ ​another,​ ​trapped​ ​between​ ​those​ ​hands​ ​and​ ​those​ ​eyes.​ ​The darkness​ ​threatened​ ​to​ ​close​ ​in​ ​around​ ​him​ ​but​ ​he​ ​just​ ​needed​ ​one​ ​more​ ​moment,​ ​just​ ​one​ ​last look,​ ​to​ ​say​ ​that​ ​name​ ​one​ ​last​ ​time.
“I​ ​will​ ​find​ ​you.​ ​I​ ​will​ ​return​ ​so​ ​that​ ​we​ ​can​ ​run​ ​together​ ​and​ ​become​ ​one.​ ​In​ ​the​ ​next​ ​life,​ ​my heart​ ​will​ ​belong​ ​only​ ​to​ ​you…​ ​Elia.”​ ​His​ ​hands​ ​rose​ ​and​ ​found​ ​strands​ ​of​ ​ebony​ ​dark​ ​hair.​ ​He couldn’t​ ​look​ ​away​ ​as​ ​tears​ ​touched​ ​flushed​ ​freckled​ ​cheeks​ ​and​ ​fell​ ​like​ ​glittering​ ​jewels​ ​to​ ​the ground.
“You​ ​will​ ​be​ ​free.​ ​We​ ​will​ ​walk​ ​side​ ​but​ ​you​ ​will​ ​always​ ​be​ ​free.”
Elia​ ​bent​ ​down​ ​and​ ​sealed​ ​his​ ​lips​ ​in​ ​a​ ​kiss.​ ​Gabriel’s​ ​eyes​ ​momentarily​ ​went​ ​wide,​ ​then softened,​ ​then​ ​the​ ​light​ ​slowly​ ​faded​ ​from​ ​them​ ​and​ ​they​ ​were​ ​only​ ​brown,​ ​no​ ​longer​ ​warm. His​ ​body​ ​was​ ​gathered​ ​carefully​ ​and​ ​carried​ ​brought​ ​by​ ​Faery​ ​arms​ ​to​ ​a​ ​place​ ​in​ ​the​ ​dark​ ​where he​ ​could​ ​rest,​ ​slumber​ ​eternally​ ​undisturbed.
The​ ​next​ ​day​ ​the​ ​wheelchair​ ​was​ ​found​ ​in​ ​the​ ​woods,​ ​abandoned.​ ​The​ ​clothes​ ​the​ ​detective had​ ​bought​ ​were​ ​missing.​ ​All​ ​that​ ​was​ ​left​ ​was​ ​a​ ​shadow.​ ​The​ ​room​ ​was​ ​sealed​ ​off,​ ​the​ ​nurses and​ ​orderlies​ ​afraid​ ​of​ ​the​ ​eyes​ ​that​ ​watched​ ​from​ ​dark​ ​places.​ ​So​ ​only​ ​animals​ ​came​ ​to​ ​visit those​ ​places​ ​until​ ​it​ ​was​ ​taken​ ​over,​ ​returned​ ​from​ ​its​ ​moldering​ ​state​ ​to​ ​be​ ​lived​ ​in​ ​and​ ​made to​ ​be​ ​a​ ​place​ ​of​ ​love.​ ​Still​ ​only​ ​animals​ ​lived​ ​there,​ ​only​ ​wolves​ ​and​ ​their​ ​humans​ ​graced​ ​those walls​ ​and​ ​were​ ​accepted​ ​among​ ​the​ ​many​ ​ghosts.

*​ ​*​ ​*

Elia​ ​blinked.​ ​He’d​ ​been​ ​thinking​ ​about​ ​him​ ​again.​ ​It​ ​had​ ​happened​ ​a​ ​lot​ ​lately.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​as​ ​though there​ ​was​ ​a​ ​familiar​ ​pull,​ ​though​ ​this​ ​was​ ​the​ ​first​ ​time​ ​he​ ​had​ ​felt​ ​that​ ​pull​ ​lead​ ​him​ ​to​ ​another person….​ ​but​ ​that​ ​was​ ​impossible.​ ​Someday​ ​maybe…​ ​maybe…​ ​he​ ​couldn’t​ ​even​ ​remember how​ ​long​ ​it​ ​had​ ​been.
He​ ​glanced​ ​at​ ​the​ ​one​ ​beside​ ​him.​ ​Red​ ​hair​ ​framed​ ​a​ ​young​ ​freckled​ ​face​ ​on​ ​a​ ​lean​ ​frame​ ​that looked​ ​like​ ​it​ ​could​ ​use​ ​a​ ​little​ ​bit​ ​more​ ​weight.​ ​He​ ​didn’t​ ​know​ ​what​ ​to​ ​say.​ ​Should​ ​he​ ​say​ ​thank you?​ ​Then​ ​he​ ​cocked​ ​his​ ​head​ ​ever​ ​so​ ​slightly.​ ​There​ ​was​ ​something​ ​about​ ​him.​ ​He​ ​felt​ ​so familiar.​ ​Even​ ​the​ ​sound​ ​of​ ​his​ ​voice​ ​was​ ​familiar,​ ​a​ ​comfort.
“What’s​ ​your​ ​name?”​ ​He​ ​asked​ ​so​ ​tentatively,​ ​as​ ​though​ ​the​ ​answer​ ​would​ ​crush​ ​him​ ​if​ ​he​ ​was wrong​ ​even​ ​though​ ​he​ ​couldn’t​ ​have​ ​known​ ​ ​what​ ​it​ ​would​ ​be.
“Ginger…”​ ​The​ ​one​ ​who​ ​spoke​ ​turned​ ​enough​ ​to​ ​look​ ​at​ ​him.​ ​His​ ​eyes​ ​were​ ​like​ ​the​ ​Caribbean Sea,​ ​almost​ ​too​ ​green​ ​to​ ​be​ ​called​ ​blue.​ ​Elia​ ​leaned​ ​in​ ​a​ ​little​ ​closer.​ ​He’d​ ​missed​ ​it​ ​before. Within​ ​the​ ​blue​ ​was​ ​a​ ​ring​ ​of​ ​soft​ ​brown,​ ​warm​ ​and​ ​rich.​ ​It​ ​was​ ​the​ ​same​ ​color.​ ​That​ ​color​ ​was like​ ​the​ ​one​ ​he’d​ ​meant​ ​to​ ​know.​ ​There​ ​was​ ​a​ ​momentary​ ​flash​ ​of​ ​light​ ​that​ ​illuminated​ ​that ring​ ​of​ ​color.​ ​Elia​ ​was​ ​sure,​ ​somehow​ ​it​ ​was​ ​him.​ ​Somehow​ ​this​ ​person​ ​was​ ​the​ ​person​ ​who​ ​was free​ ​even​ ​though​ ​they​ ​would​ ​say​ ​their​ ​heart​ ​belonged​ ​to​ ​him.​ ​It​ ​had​ ​been​ ​that​ ​heart​ ​that​ ​had stopped.​ ​Elia​ ​squinted,​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​place​ ​his​ ​memory​ ​of​ ​the​ ​one​ ​he’d​ ​spoken​ ​to​ ​once,​ ​onto​ ​the​ ​one before​ ​him​ ​and​ ​he​ ​only​ ​became​ ​more​ ​sure.​ ​“What’s​ ​your​ ​name,​ ​hmmm?”
“Elia.”​ ​Elia​ ​blinked​ ​as​ ​Ginger​ ​turned​ ​away.​ ​Maybe…​ ​maybe​ ​he​ ​was​ ​wrong.​ ​Then​ ​he​ ​watched​ ​as Ginger’s​ ​fingers​ ​rose​ ​and​ ​covered​ ​his​ ​lips,​ ​as​ ​though​ ​he​ ​were​ ​remembering​ ​something​ ​that there​ ​was​ ​no​ ​way​ ​he​ ​could​ ​know.
“Elia…​ ​Elia…”​ ​Ginger’s​ ​voice​ ​was​ ​soft,​ ​lost,​ ​and​ ​trembled​ ​ever​ ​so​ ​slightly.​ ​“Elia,​ ​I’m​ ​glad​ ​that​ ​I found​ ​you.”

 

CREDIT : Shawnti Therrien

 

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Wear

by cnkguy
Wear

wearReading Time: 15 minutes

Wear

Deep breath, I thought to myself turning the key. The door swung open. Nothingness, well, at-least not until we unloaded all of our furniture. For now, it was just an empty living room leading into a kitchen, with a bedroom on the left and a hallway with two bedrooms on the right. The house was entirely devoid of history, aside from an ancient coffee maker that the previous owner left sitting on the counter.
“It has that new house smell,” I chimed looking at my wife Sarah who was holding our six-month-old, Emma, in her arms.
“You mean old person smell? You know the last person to live here was eighty years old. I feel like I’m visiting my grandma” she retorted.
Good to see her sarcasm survived the move.
Getting everything set up wasn’t very hard, probably because we didn’t have much to move. Even though the house was small it wasn’t easy buying the place; between Med-School and taking care of the baby, this was an exhausting ordeal.
Everything was moved in but that didn’t stop the house from looking any emptier. A bed, Emma’s crib, and a couch were the only things we had. Oh, and a small box television set that we only watched movies on. Sarah insisted it was because T.V was for peasants, but ironically the real reason was because we couldn’t afford it.
I decided to go in the kitchen and make some coffee; the caffeinated potion that kept me alive these past few years. “I’m making your favorite. Want some?” I asked looking over the counter.
“I know, you know I hate coffee,” Sarah responded, sitting on the couch.
“Your loss”
“What you put extra dirt in this time?” She said jokingly.
To a degree she wasn’t wrong, I was using enough coffee powder to keep me up for days, but that was kind of the idea. Pouring the black liquid into my mug I couldn’t help pondering that a man died in this kitchen. After drinking his morning cup of coffee no less. Swallowing the bitter concoction, I tried shaking the idea out of my head. It was no use, however. The sour liquid began to turn into a nauseating, poisonous mass sliding down my throat.
“You coming?”
We had just put Emma to bed and decided to watch the old Blade Runner movie. Sarah insisted we watch it again before seeing the sequel.
“Be right there,” I answered gulping down the rest of the venom as if trying to swallow those morbid thoughts along with the drink. I sat down on the couch and we started watching the film.
“Shit,” I exclaimed face-palming.
“What’s wrong?” Sarah inquired, a confused and equally worried look on her face.
“I have a shift tonight, I have to go or John is gonna kill me,” I sighed getting up from our newly moved old couch.
“It’s cool we’ll watch it another time,” she said pulling out the DVD
I grabbed my keys and made my way to the door.
“Hey!”
“Yeah,” I responded looking back towards the couch.
“Pick up some air fresheners on your way home, I was serious earlier,” she said pinching her nose.
“Top of my list,” I smiled, grabbing the doorknob.
“Have a great day at work! God knows you did last night. It’s just sad the only time we get alone is usually at three in the morning.”
I looked back at her and raised an eyebrow in confusion. When I came home last night, Sarah was asleep. We didn’t even say a word to each other.
“Don’t act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. I haven’t seen you that energetic and crazy in a long time,” she said, with a small grin lining her face.
I looked at her with an even more perplexed expression.
“Stop messing with me, there’s no way in hell you don’t remember last night. I know I do,” she giggled.
Am I just not remembering? How many things have I forgotten? A thousand questions flooded my mind. The coffee I had just drunk bubbled in my stomach until it rose upwards. The septic mixture of bile and sludge built in my chest rising to my throat. I swallowed, forcing the vomit back down. I probably just forgot.
“You caught me,” I smiled softly, gripping the door-knob so tight the color drained from my knuckles.
“Are you okay?” Sarah asked, genuine concern in her voice.
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just wondering if John’s face can finally reach tomato shade when he sees how late I am. Last week, he was pretty close,” I chuckled, opening the door. “See you when I get back, if I survive,” I smiled, as I walked out the door, closing it quietly behind me.
I chose to forget what she said. Her words had floated silently through my ear and into the back of my mind, with all the other memories I deemed best not to remember. They sat there fermenting and growing like a parasite in my brain, waiting for the right moment to drive me into madness.
I barely made it to the hospital on time. My work was easy enough but the late hours mixed with my supervising physician John McAllister breathing down my neck every chance he got didn’t help my psyche. He was one of those fifty-somethings who probably got alcohol poisoning in high school but swears to have found Jesus. He would just as soon tell you the good word as he would burn you at the stake.
I got off work at two A.M. My eyelids felt like they were weighed down by anchors. I had to get home. The parking lot was a sea of vehicles but I somehow found my car. An old 1985 Toyota Supra I inherited from my dad. Whew homestretch, I thought taking out my keys. One of the reasons we bought the house we did was because it was closer to the hospital. Before it took twenty minutes to get to my apartment, but now it took around five.
Before I could leave I heard something below my feet. I froze and listened.
A low growl emitted from underneath the car.
Whatever was under there wasn’t happy, but I was nothing if not curious. Placing my keys on the hood, I leaned over to peak into the dark void beneath. Two black eyes met mine in the darkness.
I shined my phone’s flashlight into the black expanse, shedding light on the creature, its black eyes reflecting the light back at me. “It’s ok, boy,” I said reaching my hand toward it. The growling grew louder, but I kept reaching farther until I felt its fur. “That’s a good boy,” I said stroking its back softly.
The growling eventually subsided as I coaxed the animal out from underneath the car. Blood soaked my hands, poor thing had cuts and scratches on its chest. I pulled off my jacket and wrapped it around the German Shepherds back and stomach knotting it in place to help stop the bleeding.
I carefully picked up the dog as it whimpered. “It’s, ok, It’s, ok boy almost there,” I whispered placing him on my passenger seat. I drove to the nearest pet clinic as fast as I could, the blood on my jacket already becoming more and more visible the longer I drove.
Thankfully the dog hadn’t been bleeding for too long before I found him under my car. It only took some stitches and a whole lot of liquid to get him stabilized. He had no chip or any way of identifying that he had an owner, so I did what any rational new father and homeowner would do and decided to take him in. Before I left, the vet explained that he must have gotten into a fight with a wolf. She said it was the only explanation that made sense because of how deep the gashes were. A lot of wolves will wander around the woods surrounding the city, so this didn’t surprise me too much.
On my way home I stopped by the supermarket to pick up pet supplies. I bought all the essential dog stuff, and an air freshener. Driving back I tried not to think about how much all this cost me on top of the clinic visit.
When I pulled up to my new house it had to have been five A.M, but for some reason my next door neighbor was wide awake standing in his yard, staring at me. He had piss yellow eyes and a perpetual scowl. With shaggy white hair and a long curly beard. He looked like a mix between Santa Claus and my second removed drunk uncle Steve.
“You just moved here?” he asked behind the line of bushes that marked the intersection of our properties.
“Just moved in today,” I said forcing a smile, but it couldn’t be more obvious I was creeped out by the man. “Did you know the last owner?” I asked.
“That old fucker was a piece of work, can’t say I’m sad he died,” he scowled “But it’s good to see new blood” he declared forcing a full smile of sharp, shiny white teeth. He paused for a moment rubbing his long fingernails over each other as if he were sharpening cutlery. “There’s something I need to tell you since you’ll be sleeping one hundred feet away from me. I’m a killer.” His face was dead serious and his cold yellow eyes tore into my soul.
For a few brief moments, all I could feel was the cool breeze hitting my skin, before the loud thumping of a heartbeat brought me back to reality. I was holding the dog. He was perfectly still but his heart pounded so fast I could feel its pulsing beat on my skin. He was afraid.
My strange new neighbor continued his deathly stare, and I wondered if I should call the police. His serious expression gave way to a booming laugh that echoed to the end of the street. “Scared you for a minute there didn’t I?” he said, holding his chest like he’d gone for a long run. His face turned back to a blank stare. “I served in Nam. It’s funny how many people you can kill overseas, and when you get back home they call you a patriot, but if you kill someone on home soil it’s murder. When I got home my wife was the only thing that kept me from myself, my true self. When she died I couldn’t sleep at night. I couldn’t trust myself around my own children. So I moved here,” he said staring off into space.
His comments shocked me, but I kept a cool visage. “Well, I should be heading in, this guy has some healing to do after all,” I said looking down at the dog in my arms. “It was nice meeting you, Mr…?”
“Call me Mr. Rodgers,” he said his glinting yellow eyes glaring at the dog in my arms.
“Nice meeting you Mr. Rodgers, I’m Tom. If you ever need anything I’m your man. Don’t be a stranger,” I said, shifting slowly towards the door.
He didn’t say a word, just smiled and peered at me as I went into the house.
Well, that wasn’t weird at all, I thought walking into my new abode. I could barely see but I carefully placed the dog on the couch. The emptiness of the house took on an eerie nature in the darkness, so I turned on the light.
That’s better.
I poured my new companion some water and food. Then I placed his bed next to the couch.
“You’re safe, there are no wolves out here,” I whispered scratching behind his ears. He gazed back at me, patting his tail on the couch.
“Night boy, if Sarah doesn’t freak I’ll see you in the morning”
I stretched out my arms and yawned as I walked to my room.
What a weird day.
I grabbed the knob, but before I could open the door I heard a loud crashing sound.
Oh God, what now?
Turning around, I saw the dog limping from the couch towards me with his tongue hanging out. It took him awhile, but finally, he made it to the door and sat down. He just stood there looking at me.
“C’mon, you don’t want to sleep in there,” I begged, but his soft expression pleaded back at me. He looked down at the door and whimpered softly.
“Ok, I’ll let you sleep with us,” I said opening the door.
Even in his wounded state, this gave the animal a rush of adrenaline as he jumped on the bed curling into a ball at Sarah’s feet. She was fast asleep, probably wiped from the move. As quietly as possible I closed the door and got into bed, falling into a deep slumber instantly.
“You got a fucking dog!”
I guess I don’t need my alarm today.
I sat up to see Sarah playing with the canine and being licked furiously.
Ok good, she isn’t mad.
“Yep, He needed some help last night, wouldn’t feel right dropping him off at the shelter,” I responded wiping my eyes.
“That explains the bandages”
“So…we can keep him?” I asked, putting on the most innocent expression possible.
“Yes, but only on one condition”
“Which is…?”
“I get to name him,” she stated, still petting the dog.
“Fine by me” I sighed, rolling out of bed.
With that, my morning ritual of coffee making began. The hot beverage still seemed like poison, but I drank it anyway.
Time never moved normally in this kitchen. I could see the days rolling past, one cup of coffee at a time. Weeks, months and finally four years hastily took me by surprise.
A lot changed, and many things stayed the same. Ridley was the name Sarah chose, and he definitely had a favorite. Even Emma didn’t interest him.
My life took on a pattern beginning with coffee and ending with the yellow-eyed man. Without fail, every night he would stand in his yard when I got home. I almost looked forward to it in a strange way. The more we talked the less strange he seemed. He had some interesting secrets, and no, one of those didn’t include him being an old children’s T.V show host.
He had a strange fascination with Ridley, always asking me if I knew where he was, or if I knew how he was injured. I thought nothing of it.
Besides, when I came home I knew exactly where Ridley would be, curled up next to Sarah.
I got my Medical license, but still worked at the same hospital, John McAlister found new ways to torment me.
Last year my wife gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. He had her golden blonde hair and blue eyes. We named him Max. Our little home started to look a little less empty.
Ridley took a liking to Max and would always sit by his crib for hours on end. Watching me closely when I walked by.
That brings us to today, I had just come home from work. Mr. Rodgers, however, was not standing in his yard.
I thought about going to bed but my curiosity got the better of me.
I walked into my neighbor’s yard the dead grass pulling at my feet.
Maybe he took a day off from being creepy. Why is this so odd?
Making it to his walkway I could tell something was wrong.
His door was wide open.
Standing in front of the old decrepit house I could feel my stomach churning. Not a single light was on. The darkness of the entrance beckoned to me. Without thinking I took one step into the void, and then another.
“Mr. Rodgers!” I called into the darkness.
My eyes began to adjust.
Cobwebs lined the supports above. Bottles of liquor and vodka were strewn across the floor, and a particular half-drunk bottle sat on a dusty countertop to my left. A small static silhouette stood in a doorway in the corner.
The aged wooden floor creaked underneath my weight as I crept closer to see what created the strange shadow.
Ridley was standing at the door. He didn’t move.
“What are you doing in here? It’s time to go home”
The creature just stood there with an unblinking stare, before running back into the darkness.
Shit
I ran to the back of the house, each step causing the wooden floor to cry an unearthly scream. The door opened up to a small hallway, which in the darkness appeared to stretch on for miles. At the end, I could make out a small room. I froze in place halfway to its entrance. I could hear something, a light dripping sound, that’s what it was.
Squinting I found the source of the noise. Long pointed nails dug into the top of the doorframe, while liquid dripped from them flowing down until it fell off an old wrinkly wrist.
I stood in shock for a few seconds before realizing that he was staring at me. Nothing was visible of the figure, aside from a pair of bright yellow eyes that illuminated the pitch black doorway.
The top of the doorframe broke as Mr. Rodgers pushed himself forward using it as leverage.
“I found your dog!” Mr. Rodgers said walking into the hallway, shaking Ridley’s collar in his hand.
“Where is he?” I asked hoarsely, taking a step back.
“Can’t you see? He’s right here,” he yelled throwing the collar at my feet.
“Do you want to know how my wife died?” he asked, his lips parting to show his teeth.
“You…you told me she died in a car accident,” I stated taking another step, almost out of the hallway, ready to sprint towards the exit.
“No!” he screamed running towards me at a breakneck pace before stopping suddenly in-front of my face.
I should have run but I simply jumped back into the main room of the house petrified by the old man’s agility. Even though he couldn’t be younger than seventy-five I stood no match for his speed.
“I lied to you Tom, I lied,” he whispered placing his hand on my shoulder digging his claws into my skin.
“I…I used to drink Tom. I used to drink to keep the demons away,” he paused as a tear rolled down his cheek, his nails digging deeper.
“They were too loud. I couldn’t stop them, Tom. Her brakes failed,” he stated rolling his eyes in his head till they faced mine.
“I broke her brake pedal. I didn’t leave because I felt grief, I left because I was ashamed that it brought me pleasure killing her.”
“I killed my neighbor too, I put silver in his coffee. An innocent man Tom!”
What the fuck is he talking about?
“But none of that matters now,” he said letting go of my shoulder and moving his hand to the side of the wall. “Because I’m dead,” he grinned flipping on a light next to the door.
Mr. Rodgers body lay in the center of the room, his blood soaking into the old floorboards. A small silver knife stuck in the man’s chest, glinted in the light.
My head pounded with intense pain. I was dreaming, this didn’t make sense. My stomach ached with nauseating intensity. Falling to the floor I gagged breathing in heavily between dry-heaves.
I’m going insane. A dead man is lying on the floor and simultaneously standing in front of me.
I mustered all my strength and slowly picked myself off the ground.
“Where’s Ridley,” I asked once more.
“He’s right here! I already told you.” Mr. Rodgers shook his head, looking at the ground.
“I might as well just show you, you’ve been such a great sport thus far.” His face melted like rubber under fiery heat. His arms shrunk and twisted. His whole body soon collapsed into a large lump of goo on the ground. The monstrous pile of bubbling biology turned and took shape into that of a dog, Ridley. While it had the shape of the animal its skin was that of a man, with patches of fur around its misshapen body. Mr. Rodgers yellow eyes bulged out of the thing’s head, before shrinking into small black orbs.
Ridley walked towards me panting. He licked my hand, his odorous breath seeped into my nostrils; it smelled like rotten eggs. The fumes awakened something in me as I breathed them in deeply. All the thoughts in the back of my head cracked open like a spider’s egg and forced themselves to the surface of my consciousness. A monster had taken the form of an innocent animal, and I had left it home with my wife every single day. Nothing but this creature’s death mattered now, not even my life.
I stepped away from the “dog” towards Mr. Rodgers body.
I have to make a run for the knife. I thought advancing towards the body. I ran faster than I had ever run before, each step was an eternity. Jumping I reached out to grab the knife out of the corpse. A mangled fleshy hand grabbed my leg mid-leap, slamming me to the ground. Blood coated the side of my face, fragments of the wooden floor stuck to my cheek. My vision was blurred but I could see the monstrosity pulling my body closer, and closer to itself. The warped hand was thick with a wet slimy substance that soaked through my pants and dripped on the floor. It was connected to an irregularly long arm protruding from a shaking cocoon of veiny skin and blood.
Adrenaline rushed through my body as I clawed at the hardwood floor sending splinters up my fingernails. The beast’s unnatural strength dragged my body back until I was facing its ungodly mass of tissue. The pulsating puddle grew until it loomed over me. Its arm cracked and broke as it shrunk, becoming part of the figure forming above.
“Trying to stab your best friend Ridley?” the carnal atrocity sputtered above me, sending saliva and bodily fluids spilling onto my face. The creature had pearly white teeth that shifted in its moving warped body. Two holes formed where its eyes should have been.
The arm had disappeared into the monstrosity and my leg let free with it. This was my chance. I stood up slamming my fist into the misshapen mouth from which it spoke. My fist cracked the creature’s teeth, but it still stood unmoving. Though injured the creature’s mouth curved into a tilted smile that quickly opened up and grabbed my hand sucking it into itself. My arm was fully constricted and all I could feel was the loud thumping pulse of a heart. The sound of bones cracking bounced off the walls as the figure fully took shape. A hand formed around my arm gripping tightly.
I looked up and saw its morphed figure. Mr. Rodgers’ large yellow eyes slowly filled the empty sockets like egg yolks being squeezed into a bowl. Ridley’s snout jutted out of its face, if you could call it that. It had my height, my legs, and my arms. Something else that resembled an arm was coming out of its chest, it was perfectly smooth and liquid dripped off of it. It pulsed uncontrollably with the beat of what I assumed was a heart in the creature. It slowly shrunk back into the things chest. “You’re going insane Tom,” The creature said in my voice as it swung its other hand down on my arm, snapping it at the elbow. I shouted in pain as it flung me out the door into the walkway.
My body flew through the air before crashing into the solid ground. I landed on my back, the force of the fall hit squarely between my shoulders forcing all the air in my lungs to be expelled in a quick exhale. My body slid shortly thereafter before rolling down three steps causing my head to slam into the ground. Blood dripped from my face as I tried to pull myself up the steps. I didn’t even have enough strength to climb them. My body was broken.
Laying on the concrete I took a jarring breath that rattled my ribcage. I could see my own legs walking slowly towards me. I raised my hands to fight but it was no use. It picked me up again and pushed me to the ground behind the bushes.
“You’re losing your mind. You’re a fake, you aren’t real. I’m the real Tom. That’s not your son in that house,” it said pointing over the brush. “That’s my son.”
A light flicked on in the house. Sarah had probably woken up from hearing my scream. I drew a breath to yell, but the monster’s leg crashed into my chest breaking at least eight of my ribs.
I tried to breathe, but that only caused my chest to further collapse. My sight was fading from pain but I could see “him”. It had fully taken my appearance, even as far as mimicking a small scar above my left eye I obtained after crashing my bike at the age of twelve. It was like looking in a mirror and seeing someone else who resembled you perfectly. A dark shadow that would follow you as you walked away from the reflection, a darkness you think you can control. Except now my reflection was controlling me.
It towered over me with a slight grin signifying victory. “Stay right here,” it growled walking towards my home.
Sarah opened the door and waited for me with Emma in her arms, while “I” strolled up to them. I could see their mouths moving but it was too quiet to make out. When it arrived at my home, it promptly locked its lips on Sarah’s while stroking her shoulder firmly. Its eyes were open staring at the bushes, staring at me while it embraced her.
I choked as my lungs filled up with blood. All I could do was watch, while my wife was caressed by a monster

 

CREDIT : TimedMistakes

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