Authors: Charles de Lint
I just wish someone would tell my pulse that.
"What about your brother?" I ask, trying to think about something other than that amazing kiss. "What's he going to do?"
"J-Dog doesn't know anything more than me finding Lenny at Tiki Bay."
"You didn't tell him about the guy?"
"I can't. None of the Avers know about Lenny and me—that we're Wildlings. And they can't ever know about this guy. J-Dog's pretty much the toughest dude I know, and he's crazy enough to do pretty much anything, but that elder would take him down without even breaking a sweat. It's just us. You and me. We're on our own."
"We'll figure this out."
"I know. I knew I could count on you."
He walks me back to the boardwalk, arm still around my shoulders. I think he's put what happened between us out of his mind, but when we stop at the end of my street, he turns to me.
"Back there," he says. "That was nice."
I want to remind him that this is just a role we're playing, except then I'm back on my tiptoes and I give him a quick kiss.
"Later," I say.
Before he can react or say anything else, I set off for home at a jog.
When I get back into bed, I can't sleep. I think about this mysterious cousin and what he wants. I worry about Josh. I try to figure out how I'll sneak off to see Auntie Min.
But mostly I think about that long kiss at the water line and how good it felt to be in Chaingang's arms.
Theo, I tell myself.
From now on I'm going to call him Theo.
I don't get girls. I mean I
don't get them.
Two weeks ago I had a girlfriend, but even that was complicated. Elzie was perfect. Cute, smart and a Wildling just like me. The first thing she told me was that she didn't want commitments. Then she hung out with me every day, like we were going steady, until she walked out of my life as suddenly as she came into it.
She did give me a choice: Leave everything I know and go with her into an unspoiled otherworld that only Wildlings can find.
I know why she stayed over there. That place was everything this world isn't, the way it must have been before people ever showed up. It's what she wants this world to be: no people and none of the crap that people need to survive, like houses and factories and roads and cars. But I have too many people I care about to abandon them all. So I abandoned her instead. I just let her go and came back here.
I still have no idea if I did the right thing. I know why I did it. I couldn't just walk out on Mom without any explanation. My father already did that, and I'm not going to be the same guy as him. But it's hard. I think about Elzie all the time. I just really really miss her. She was so free spirited and totally embraced her Wildling side. She showed me how to let out the mountain lion in me and appreciate the wild freedom it gave me. I haven't had that experience since I left the otherworld.
It's especially bad at night when there's nothing else to distract me. At least during the day I've got school to keep me busy, but that has its own pitfalls.
I don't know why I wasn't expecting it. Just because I survived being Tasered, kidnapped and then imprisoned for sick medical experimentation by a private corporation, doesn't mean the drama that is everyday life at Sunny Hill High School is going to take a vacation.
I'm not paying attention to it until it's too late. I'm just trying to fit myself back into my old world. My own life.
The elder Wildlings say it's impossible. I'm a member of the Mountain Lion Clan and that's who I am now. That's what my new life is, and they've got all kinds of ideas about what I'm supposed to do.
Turns out they're right—about me not being able to go back to my old life, I mean—but not for the reasons they gave me. The reason I can't get my old life back is because I totally messed up with my best friend Marina and, without her, all the things that were important to me don't mean very much anymore. Our friendship goes deeper than my relationship with Elzie. Marina and I have known each other forever, and up until a couple of weeks ago, I wouldn't have thought that anything could come between us.
But that changed after she lied to me. We said we'd put it behind us—and I'm trying—but what we really need to do is sit down and talk it out, and we haven't been able to do that yet. Since she's been grounded, I only see her at school and that's no place to have a serious, face-to-face, uninterrupted conversation. So we're left with a big disconnect. It all feels like small talk and surface friendliness, and I hate it.
I still hang with Desmond. We play in his garage, but the programmed drum beats we're using are no match for Marina's live playing. Des and I still go the skatepark. The beach. School. But everything seems … smaller without her.
Without her. Without Elzie.
Mostly, the days just go by.
But meanwhile—and let me tell you, I didn't have a clue this was going on—Erik Gess had been building up a long slow rage aimed right at me.
Let's count the reasons he's so ticked off at me: I'm not white. He thinks I'm a drug dealer. He also thinks I'm a Wildling—thank you for that, Desmond. And then there's the fact that I made him look like a fool when he tried to jump me at lunch one day. He got suspended, I just got detention. That's got to hurt for the president of the Sunny Hill Purity Club and one of the stars of our school's track team.
I should point out that while the Sunny Hill Purity Club is associated with the national one, the national club is inclusive. It doesn't matter what colour your skin is. All you have to do is swear off drugs, alcohol and sex and you're golden. Not so much with our local version. Not only do I have it on good authority that they drink and smoke dope on the sly, they also have this whole whites-only thing. If you're Asian, Latino or black, don't even think of joining.
I've never had any interest in their club. I don't drink or take drugs, but I don't do celibacy. At least, I didn't until my girlfriend dumped me. No, that's not really fair. She wanted me to stay with her in that parallel otherworld we found ourselves in.
But I'm getting off track.
The point is, I've got a lot going on and I'm still trying to figure it out. If something's not right in front of me demanding attention, I don't think about it. Erik was still suspended when I got back to school, so he just wasn't on my radar anymore. That changed on his first day back.
I was still doing my detentions—I only had three more days of staying after school—so Desmond goes ahead to the skatepark, where I'll meet him later.
At least, that's the plan.
The problem is, a half mile from the school, a couple of guys from the track team come out of a lane onto the sidewalk to block my way. Kurt Stice and Hughie Jones. Wherever they are, Erik can never be that far away. I don't bother to turn around when I hear two more sets of footsteps coming up behind me. I know neither of them is Erik because I can already catch his scent coming from the lane Kurt and Hughie stepped out of. A moment later and there he is. He saunters around the corner of the adobe building looking very pleased with himself, and I realize that while I haven't been thinking about him, he's been obsessing about me.
I glance behind me. Allan Laramore and Christian Willert are standing there. All five of them are blue-eyed and blond—which isn't hard to find in So-Cal—but it's like the junior branch of the Aryan Brotherhood has tracked me down.
"There's no place to run, Saunders," Erik says. "You're not going anywhere."
I turn back to him. "What do you want?"
"What do you think I want? You made me look like an asshole in front of the whole school. It's payback time."
"We don't have to do this."
He grins. "Oh, but we
. We're going to find out how tough you Wildlings really are."
"I'm not a Wildling."
That grin gets bigger. "Then I guess this is really going to hurt."
I have this long moment of clarity—or at least it feels long. I guess it's more like how time seems to slow down when you're in the middle of an accident. But I have all this time to think. I realize that I could probably take all five of them—without even having to shift into a mountain lion. The problem with that is, there goes any chance I have of salvaging a normal life. Nobody's going to believe I could take on all these guys by myself unless I
So I take option two.
I let Allan and Christian grab me from behind. I struggle in their grip—but not like the mountain lion wants me to. It wants me to shred the pair. I only struggle enough to sell myself as being a kid, outnumbered and in trouble.
Then Erik hits me and I almost let the mountain lion go. It's not the pain of his fist in my face. It's the smarmy look of triumph on his. I want to wipe it off. The mountain lion wants to rip it off.
The next fist hits me in the stomach and I double over. Allan and Christian let me go and I fall down. I start to get up, but one of them kicks me in the back and I go down again. Then they all start kicking me and I realize this wasn't such a bright idea. If I didn't want a confrontation, I should have just taken off. I could have left them all behind in half a block.
Erik sits on my chest and starts pounding on my face.
"Hey, easy, man," I hear someone say. "You're going to kill him."
I don't have any choice. I have to let the mountain lion out now or he
going to kill me.
But before I can, I hear a car squeal to a halt right beside us. A door opens and a familiar voice yells, "FBI. Nobody move."
Except they all take off like scared rabbits. The mountain lion wants to chase them down and snap their necks, one by one. I just lie there on the pavement and try to breathe as I listen to them run off.
Something blocks the sun. I squint through swollen eyes to see Agent Solana bending down toward me. Agent Matteson is standing behind him. The last time I saw them was when they came by the house to tell me that the security guys from ValentiCorp were out on bail but I didn't need to worry about them. Part of their bail restrictions was that they weren't allowed back in Santa Feliz.
"Jesus Christ, kid," Matteson says. "You're a freaking mess."
Solana puts a hand behind me and gently helps me sit up.
"You—you should see the other guys."
It's hard to talk. My lips feel twice their normal size. My tongue finds a loose tooth.
"We did," Matteson says. "They didn't have a mark on them."
His lip twitches and I realize he's trying to make a joke.
"Why—are you guys—still following me?"
"We just happened to be driving by," Matteson says.
Yeah, right. But all I say is, "Lucky—for me."
"Yeah, no kidding. You must have really pissed those guys off."
"We need to get you to a hospital," Solana says. "And call in the locals. Can you identify any of your assailants?"
I shake my head. That hurts, too.
"No hospital," I say. "And no police."
"This is serious," Solana says. "Those boys could have killed you."
"Did—you ever go to high school?" I ask.
"Remember how much everybody liked the kid who squealed?"
"This is heavy-duty bullying. Assault isn't the same as who stole somebody's pencil," Matteson says.
"No police," I repeat.
The agents exchange a look. Matteson sighs.
"There's not much we can do if he won't identify them," he says.
Solana nods. "But we're taking you to the hospital. You could have internal injuries."
I force myself to my feet and try not to sway. I hurt everywhere.
"I just got roughed up," I say. "You showed up right after it started. All I need to do is go home and lie down."
Solana glances at Matteson and shakes his head.
"I wouldn't say no to a ride home," I tell him before he can say anything.
Again they exchange a look.
"It's his call," Matteson finally says.
I accept Solana's help to the car.
When we're all inside, Matteson leans over the seat to look at where I'm slumped in a corner.
"Why did you let them beat you up?" he asks.
"But with your abilities, you could have—"
"I keep telling you. I'm not a Wildling."
He studies me for a long moment.
"Yeah," he finally says. "I guess you're not."
"Seat belt," Solana says as Matteson pulls the car away from the curb.
I fumble with the clasp until it locks into place. I lean my head on the back of the seat and stare out the window. I can't remember ever hurting as much as I do right now. Under my skin I can feel the mountain lion's impatience. It wants to go hunting.
I close my eyes.
Mom's not home when they drop me off. I go in and grab some painkillers, then collapse on the couch. I manage to text Des to tell him that something's come up and I can't meet him, then I lie back. I know there's something about not falling asleep when you could have a concussion, but right now I don't care. The adrenaline rush that's been keeping me going has worn off and I need to crash. I wrap myself in Mom's TV blanket and let the painkillers take me away.
It feels like only minutes later when I wake to Mom hovering over me. The look on her face tells me I haven't magically healed while I was asleep. Then I remember. That only happens when you shift into your animal form and then back again.
"It's okay," I lie. "It looks way worse than it really is."
"I got jumped by some guys after school."
For a moment her worry turns to puzzlement.
"I don't understand," she says. "Couldn't your—special abilities—protect you?"
"But that was the whole point. How better to prove that I'm not a Wildling?"
"And you think
was worth it?"
"It seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Who were these boys?"
I shake my head.
"Joshua Saunders. If you think I'm going to just stand back and let a bunch of thugs give my son a beating, you don't know me very well."